The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dana Loesch, the NRA’s brash spokeswoman, dials back the rage at CNN town hall

National Rifle Associate spokesperson Dana Loesch once wrote a motherhood blog. Now she’s a vocal advocate for firearm ownership. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Exactly one year ago, the National Rifle Association excitedly announced that it had tapped Dana Loesch, a conservative commentator and radio host, to serve as its spokeswoman. She had all the right chops for the job: razor-sharp public speaking skills, a devoted online following, and, most importantly, an extensive track record of fervently defending the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.

Long respected in conservative circles for her brash political commentary and unapologetic gun rights advocacy, Loesch gained broader attention last year with a pair of inflammatory NRA ads that critics said could incite violence against the organization’s perceived opponents.

But it wasn’t until Wednesday night that Loesch’s role as the public face of the country’s preeminent gun rights organization was truly put to the test.

Loesch, 39, was one of several panelists who participated in a heated CNN town hall with survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The conversation, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, offered a rare opportunity for friends, family and teachers of the 17 students and staff killed in the attack to air their pain and anger on national television — and to directly confront some of the people they felt shared a degree of responsibility for the country’s gun violence epidemic.

The NRA could hardly have picked a more qualified representative to meet them on stage.

Loesch grew up in small-town Missouri, where her grandfather taught her how to shoot BB guns in the back yard, according to her 2014 book “Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America.” Her parents were rifle owners who voted for Democrats. She said she was liberal as a youth, but she grew more conservative after President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Gun rights activism wasn’t her first calling. She dropped out of journalism school in her early 20s after she got pregnant with her first son, then started a motherhood blog that became popular in the mid-2000s. She joined the tea party movement after President Barack Obama’s election and launched a syndicated radio program, “The Dana Show,” that’s still on the air.

A pivotal experience for Loesch came in 2009 when she said she received an email from an anonymous reader threatening her family, apparently provoked by her commentary defending a black conservative activist, she wrote in her book. After that, she wrote, she took up firearms training, started carrying a handgun and quickly transformed herself into a prominent Second Amendment advocate.

Andrew Breitbart hired her as a commentator around that time, and she later left to join the Blaze, Glenn Beck’s right-leaning media company. She has also worked as a CNN analyst and has appeared as a guest on Fox News, HBO and other networks.

For Loesch, gun ownership is a sacred matter of self-defense.

“I take gun rights very personally,” she wrote in her book. “I view it as a threat to my and my family’s well-being whenever anyone seeks to erode or take away my Second Amendment civil liberty.”

But her advocacy often spirals into extremes. Her book compares gun control efforts to Nazi and Stalinist propaganda, and she inveighs against what she calls “the tragedy caucus,” a broad assortment of liberal “gun grabbers” who, in her eyes, exploit mass shootings “as a tactic to take away law-abiding citizens’ guns.”

When the NRA revealed this week that it was sending Loesch to the CNN town hall, some gun control supporters recoiled. Loesch was too strident to face off with grieving teens, they suggested.

“Is it really necessary for CNN to pit them against a vicious, dishonest and radicalized NRA lobbyist?” tweeted gun control activist Shannon Watts. “This is like inviting tobacco lobbyists to explain to kids who have lost loved ones to lung cancer how we can prevent smoking deaths.”

Indeed, Loesch has a history of assailing gun control advocates in abrasive and sometimes vulgar terms. After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., she referred to them as “tragedy dry-humping whores.” She has also compared penalizing firearm owners for improperly storing their weapons to “shaming a rape survivor.”

None of that language came out in Wednesday night’s town hall, which also featured Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Though the discussion grew tense at times and was peppered with jeers and boos from the audience, Loesch seemed to keep her cool.

In one dramatic exchange, Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas senior who has emerged as a national leader among student activists, stood across the stage from Loesch and addressed her directly.

“I want you to know that we will support your children in a way that you will not,” she told Loesch. She then asked if she believed it should be harder for people to obtain semiautomatic weapons.

Before responding, Loesch praised González for speaking out about gun control.

“I was a very politically active teenager and I’m on this stage as a result of that,” she said. “Think of how far you all could go as a result of voicing your beliefs.”

Groans rose from the crowd, and someone could be heard shouting, “If they live to do it.”

“I don’t believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm, ever,” Loesch said. She went on to criticize “flawed” background check systems, though the NRA on its website states that it opposes expanding those systems, as The Washington Post has noted.

González said Loesch failed to answer her question about semiautomatic weapons, and asked again. Loesch said she was there to represent the NRA’s 5 million members, not offer her opinion.

Israel, the sheriff, interjected: “You just told this group of people you’re standing up for them. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’ ”

The crowd roared in approval. Loesch sat silently, her hands folded in her lap.

Loesch drew praise on her Twitter feed for her performance.

It was a different version of Loesch than the Second Amendment firebrand who has appeared in recent NRA videos. Twice this year, Loesch has come under criticism from a range of viewers, including a few gun owners, who say her public service announcements about the purported left-wing war on decent Americans have crossed the line.

A June video shows clips of protests and riots with Loesch warning of a societal collapse while ominous music plays in the background.

“They use their media to assassinate real news,” she warns. “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”

“The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country, and our freedom,” she concludes, “is to fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.”

Critics said the dark us-vs.-them narrative sounded like it was designed to provoke fear, or even incite violence. “This is an open call to violence to protect white supremacy,” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson said. A handful of self-described gun owners also objected in comments on social media, as The Washington Post reported.

She came under scrutiny again for an August video that accused the New York Times of promoting “propaganda” and “fake news” for its coverage of the Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton.

“Consider this the shot across your proverbial bow,” she warns, vowing to “laser focus” on the Times’s reporting. “In short, we’re coming for you.”

That, too, seemed to some like a call to violence.

Loesch, however, does not agree. She dismissed such claims as people “projecting their violent fantasies on to others.”