A shooter kills, the nation mourns and, immediately, both sides in the debate over guns fall into a well-worn pattern: Gun-control proponents rally their supporters, pressing lawmakers to tighten regulations. Gun rights advocates hang back, waiting for the public’s sorrow and outrage to subside. And nothing further happens, until the next horrific act fuels the next spin of the cycle.
This is what happened after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, after the Sandy Hook elementary school killings in Newtown, Conn., after the massacre at Virginia Tech. This is, according to gun rights activists, what will unfold in the aftermath of the killing of at least 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday night.
The National Rifle Association, the country’s most influential gun rights group, counts on this, past officials of the organization said.
“For 17 years, there’s been a series of nonstop copycat mass killings, and the NRA has concluded that engaging in battle will just escalate the backlash,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America and a former consultant to the NRA.
“Our supporters understand that gun-control demands are just an effort to put points on the board against the NRA, which is viewed as an arm of the Republican Party. So the NRA is quiet, and then, after the ‘we gotta do something’ aspect quiets down, they go back to defending freedom.”
NRA officials did not respond to a request for comment, but the organization’s media strategy is plain to see. Its social media feeds — normally a near-constant stream of tales of Americans using their firearms to fend off bad guys and warnings against purported efforts to disarm citizens — went dark Sunday and have stayed that way.
As of Tuesday evening, the NRA Twitter feed has had no new posting since Sept. 29, the Friday before Sunday's shootings. In the previous week, the feed featured an average of 10 posts a day. Similarly, the group's Facebook page has gone silent, with no postings since last week.
“The NRA goes dark after every single mass shooting,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which pushes for gun regulation. “That’s just what they do. I’m guessing that they are sitting in a room somewhere strategizing.”
In the cultural and political standoff over the role that guns should play in American society, the sides are so starkly drawn that groups such as the NRA don’t really need to jump into action when a traumatic event such as the Vegas shooting takes place.
"The NRA doesn't need to send out their troops immediately after these shootings, because they've already trained people to believe that these incidents will lead to a crackdown on gun ownership," said Jeff Nugent, a former chief executive of companies such as Revlon and Neutrogena and brother of entertainer Ted Nugent, who serves on the NRA's national board.
After Sunday's shooting, one of the musicians who played at the festival in Vegas said that the attack had prompted him to abandon his lifelong support for gun rights. "We need gun control RIGHT. NOW," guitarist Caleb Keeter said on Twitter.
But Keeter’s comments were an anomaly; in the nation’s deeply polarized popular culture, country artists generally either support gun rights or stay quiet about the issue, in part because the NRA actively cultivates connections with country and rock acts.
The intent is to build up enough credibility with country fans and like-minded supporters so the pro-gun side can withstand the pressure for gun control that tends to mount after each mass shooting, according to those who study NRA strategy.
In the weeks after a gunman killed 26 people — including 20 first-graders — in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, polls found a small shift in favor of gun control and against protection of gun ownership. But within a few months, that shift had disappeared, and the public was back to a near-even split between those two priorities.
“After Sandy Hook, the people on the gun control side had the moral authority, and a lot of that came from having the president of the United States on their side,” said Mike Weisser, a lifetime member of the NRA who has written several books on gun policy. “That world has disappeared. Now, with [President] Trump, the NRA can afford to hang back and then come out and say, ‘We’re for self-defense, thoughts and prayers, have a nice day.’ ”
Jeff Nugent said the NRA has mastered the craft of using pop culture and social media to create a base of support that can withstand periodic surges of anti-gun sentiment.
“Their work’s already done through building relationships,” he said, “and my brother’s a great example of how they do it. My dad taught us to hunt when I was 10 years old. And I hunt a lot. So they take artists who are already passionate about guns, and they invite them to their annual meeting, and that influences the fans. You see people lining up around this humongous facility, long lines waiting to get my brother’s autograph. They help him, and he helps them. It’s an amazing strategy.”
The NRA works hard to align itself with country music. The organization’s NRA Country program sponsors concerts, festivals and benefits for military and veteran groups.
“NRA Country will be involved in causes that defend our values and it will empower our artist friends who promote these values,” an NRA statement says.
NRA Country publicizes its "featured artists," a roster of 39 country acts that includes such performers as Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry and Hank Williams Jr. The relationship is mutually beneficial: The NRA gets to wrap its message in the charisma and popularity of its supporting celebrities, and the artists get a welcome dose of publicity and exposure to a friendly audience.
One of the artists on the list, Kevin Fowler, has performed at the NRA Country Jam during the association's annual convention. Fowler sells T-shirts at his concerts that show an automatic weapon above the words "Come and Take It / Kevin Fowler." Fowler's song "Beer, Bait and Ammo" is a proud paean to those "bona fide redneck" necessities, and the artist said in an interview with Glenn Beck's TheBlaze website that "if guns piss you off . . . you're probably not coming to my show anyway . . . so I don't give a damn whether it pisses you off."
The cultural split over guns closely tracks the country’s political polarization, advocates on both sides of the debate agreed. “The Republicans correctly perceive that gun owners are probably the largest extant foundation of their base,” said Hammond, of Gun Owners of America. “There are fewer people hunting than there used to be, but more people are buying guns for protection, including more women and more LGBT people.”
Weisser, a Democrat who favors regulation despite his NRA membership, said gun-control advocates have failed to appeal to people who are not college graduates and people who view taking their kids to gun shows on Saturdays as entertainment, not as a political statement.
“There won’t be any change as long as the gun-control audience is a bunch of people who look like the friends I went to graduate school with,” he said. “The only time you ever had any real prospect of more gun control was when you had a liberal Democrat in the White House and a blue Congress, like under Lyndon Johnson.”
Now, the president is a man who pledged to an NRA convention this spring that “you have a true friend and champion in the White House.” With that kind of cover, gun rights advocates can safely avoid the fray, said Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“They’ll put forward the general idea that it’s not guns, it’s bad people,” Webster said. And that argument carries considerable power in a country where many people own guns.
Many Americans “know tons of people who have guns, and most of those people are not going to concerts and shooting people,” Webster said. “Their whole lived experience is they’re surrounded by guns, and usually nothing bad happens.”
Katie Zezima and Scott Clement contributed to this report.