I recognize that this piece will be misconstrued as so much pearl-clutching by the media. I will also say at the top that there are legitimate questions about how the media should cover mass shootings, especially whether making the killers famous creates copycats.
All of that said, it's worth stating it: The NRA's newest talking points after the tragedy in Parkland, Fla., are wholly dishonest. They even suggest desperation.
Starting with a video posted to Twitter just before midnight and going to appearances at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday morning, the NRA has decided it will argue that the mainstream media actually likes mass shootings and wants to enslave Americans.
That's not my hyperbole; it's theirs.
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings,” NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch said at CPAC. “You guys love it. Now I'm not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. ... Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre later lumped the media with Democrats and said, “The elites don't care — not one whit — about America's school system and schoolchildren. ... Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”
Plenty of our political rhetoric these days is overheated. And it's not just red meat tossed to a base; more and more, groups like the NRA and the White House also aim to draw an overreaction (real or perceived) from groups like the media. So the NRA says these things and talking heads on CNN flip out, and it creates a rallying effect among the NRA supporters who are already convinced CNN is as awful and biased as LaPierre says it is.
But these talking points are grotesque, and they don't even make much sense. They also suggest that the NRA has changed Defcon levels in the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. With the students there keeping the issue front-and-center and President Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) flirting with new measures like raising age requirements and magazine capacity limits, the NRA appears quite concerned.
Both the video and Loesch notably try to thread a needle by arguing that the media loves mass shootings but that it doesn't necessarily love tragedy. But that really seems to be a distinction without a difference. It's like saying you love cake but don't like sugar. That caveat is a great way of claiming you didn't actually say the thing you just said. It's the rhetorical equivalent of giving yourself a Get Out of Jail Free Card.
LaPierre, meanwhile, closes the loop by arguing that the media and Democrats are using these shootings not just for ratings, but to take away people's rights. He says they don't care at all about children or schools and want to “eradicate all individual freedoms.” Getting rid of all individual freedoms? That's the definition of enslaving someone. And that's laying it on pretty thick, even by LaPierre's standards.
Indeed, LaPierre is no stranger to stretching the bounds of our political discourse. And plenty will point out it doesn't seem to have hurt the NRA in the past. We haven't seen any new gun laws for years and years, after all, and preventing such laws is the NRA's raison d'etre. If anything, it seems to be working!
I would submit that it works up until the point it doesn't. It's only been a week since the massacre at Douglas High School, and drawing any conclusions about the long-term future of the gun debate is a fraught exercise. Emotions tend to dissipate over time. I still don't think we're headed for large-scale gun laws, in large part because most Republicans agree with the NRA that they wouldn't do much to prevent the tragedies like the one in Parkland. But there is precedent for the NRA's rhetoric going too far. In 1995, it went too far for former president George H.W. Bush, who resigned from the group after LaPierre called federal agents “jackbooted thugs.” The comment was in response to how the government handled the siege in Waco, Tex., and it sent the NRA's favorable rating to a new low.
Support for the NRA is definitely more robust and dug-in right now, and this probably isn't going to have the same impact in the near term. But that doesn't change the fact that it's the kind of talking point that could be difficult for some Republicans to align with. And as with all over-the-top rhetoric, it suggests that the NRA would rather not try to win this argument on the merits.