In an address to the annual gathering of the National Rifle Association in April 2007, two days before a gunman would kill 32 people at Virginia Tech, Wayne LaPierre told an audience of gun owners that “the Second Amendment's first duty is to preserve the First Amendment, the Third Amendment, the Fourth Amendment and all the other freedoms guaranteed in our Bill of Rights.”
Then LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive and most visible figure, gestured toward a firearm-filled exhibition hall and said, “What's safely contained in that hall is every printing press, microphone and every camera. Every news blog and every email you send.”
Such a message from the NRA — that a free press is valuable and worth protecting — is hard to imagine today, after spokeswoman Dana Loesch, in an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, said this week that “many in legacy media love mass shootings.” The NRA has even launched a new ad campaign based on this premise.
The story of the NRA's posture toward news media over the past two decades is one of ever more extreme rhetoric. When LaPierre spoke at the group's convention in 1999, less than two weeks after student gunmen killed 13 people at Columbine High School, he did not mention the media at all.
As mass shootings have occurred more frequently, subjecting the gun rights group to public scrutiny that it calls unfair, the NRA has, in turn, cast the media as an increasingly nefarious enemy of law-abiding gun owners and helpless schoolchildren alike.
Between Columbine and Virginia Tech, the NRA generally confined its media criticisms to claims of bias. In 2003, for example — before “fake news” was a popular phrase — LaPierre accused CNN of airing a “fake” report on the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban, which was set to expire the following year. CNN had broadcast a weapons demonstration by the sheriff of Broward County, Fla., that included a machine gun, giving viewers the false impression that fully automatic rifles would become legal if the ban were not renewed. CNN later corrected the report.
(Last week's school shooting that claimed 17 lives occurred in Broward County, but the current sheriff is not the same person who led the demonstration 15 years ago.)
In 2005, the NRA successfully argued to CBS that journalist Mike Wallace should not cover gun rights issues because he had compromised his objectivity by speaking at a fundraiser for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
It is the Virginia Tech shooting that seems to mark a turning point at which the NRA moved from alleging anti-gun bias in the press to suggesting that the media might inspire future shooters.
“I’m not blaming the media for what happened at Virginia Tech,” LaPierre wrote in a blog post. “That responsibility ultimately rests with the killer himself. But the press is responsible for what [it] does, for the images it presents us, and there's not a doubt in my mind that the press coverage of this individual gave comfort and validation to others with the same twisted evil in their hearts.”
In a speech at CPAC in 2011, a month after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was wounded in a shooting near Tucson that left six dead, LaPierre ratcheted up the intensity.
Covering mass shooters, he said, “turns a madman into a hero for every deranged potential copycat out there. It's sick, it's wrong, and the media ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
At a news conference one week after 26 people were gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, LaPierre went even further, saying that “too many in the national media, their corporate owners, and their stockholders act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators.”
He went on:
You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy. But what if — what if when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he’d been confronted by qualified armed security? Will you at least admit it’s possible that 26 little kids — that 26 innocent lives might have been spared that day? …Is the press and the political class here in Washington, D.C., so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and American gun owners that you’re willing to accept a world where real resistance to evil monsters is a lone, unarmed school principal left to surrender her life — her life — to shield those children in her care?No one — no one — regardless of personal, political prejudice has the right to impose that sacrifice.
LaPierre and the NRA had staked out a different position after Columbine.
“We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools,” he said at the time. “That means no guns in America’s schools, period, with the rare exception of law-enforcement officers or security personnel.”
Now, the NRA contends that armed guards should not be “rare” but rather present in every school — that the media is complicit in mass shootings and even loves them because, according to Loesch, “crying white mothers are ratings gold.”