10 Thoughts About the 2017 NRA Annual Meeting

This past weekend, the National Rifle Association conducted its annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Here are ten thoughts about that gathering:
 
 1)
The main question I had coming into the 2017 NRA Annual Meeting was: Would Putin deputy Alexander Torshin attend the event for the sixth year in a row?
 
Torshin is a former senator from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who now serves as the deputy head of the Central Bank in Russia. He’s also known to have ties to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the KGB. Torshin is also involved in organized crime. Spanish investigators determined that Torshin laundered money for the Taganskaya mafia in Moscow. They also noted that Taganskaya leader Alexander Romanov addresses Torshin as “boss” or “godfather.”

Alexander Torshin likes his silencers. From the 2016 NRA annual meeting in Louisville.

In 2011, conservative Tennessee lawyer G. Kline Preston IV introduced Torshin to then-NRA president David Keene, the former chairman of the American Conservative Union. That started a fruitful relationship between the NRA and Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia that has continued to this day.

Not only has Torshin come to America several times to visit his NRA confidantes (frequently traveling with his enigmatic “special assistant” at the Central Bank, Maria Butina, who heads a pro-gun group in Russia that accomplishes remarkably little despite its top-level connections). The NRA has also gone to Moscow, most notably in a December 2015 trip to meet with Torshin and Russian defense minister Dmitry Rogozin. The large NRA delegation included Keene, radical sheriff David A. Clarke and gun manufacturer Pete Brownell. 
 
The grand, mutual project of both the NRA and Russia was to elect Donald Trump as president — a remarkable success that surprised them (and U.S. political observers as well). Did Keene and his colleagues know about Russia’s tampering with our election and collusion with the Trump campaign before the American public was informed? That’s a question that should be answered.
 
The Trump administration is currently staying at arm’s length from the Putin camp because of the plethora of investigations into their ties with Russia by our intelligence agencies, Congress, DoJ, DoD, etc. Notably, the administration snubbed Torshin and Butina at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in February, cancelling a meeting they scheduled with President Trump at the last minute. 
 
Now it appears that Torshin and Butina skipped the 2017 NRA annual meeting, breaking their streak. They undoubtedly knew that reporters would be looking to spot them this year, as did Keene, Wayne LaPierre, & Co.
 
 2) The 2017 NRA Annual Meeting was a Christian event. The invocation at the 2017 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum was given by tainted former Reagan aide Oliver North, who asked attendees to pray to “Jesus Christ, Our Savior.” No room was allowed for other faiths. The Leadership Forum is the premier event at the meeting, with President Trump as the featured speaker this year in Atlanta. [How appropriate to start an event featuring a traitor who thinks he is above the law with another traitor who thinks he is above the law.]
 
 3) The NRA has tied its fortunes to Trump. The organization endorsed Trump early and then spent more than $30 million to elect him. The NRA has attacked Trump’s critics — including those investigating his ties with Russia — and embraced the administration’s fascist bent
 
 The 2017 Annual Meeting was a celebration and coronation of Trump as The (Last?) Great White Hope of NRA supporters. And Trump made a blanket promise to the faithful, saying, “As your president I will never ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Never ever. Freedom is not a gift from government. Freedom is a gift from God.”

The NRA didn’t always believe in Trump, who was once a proponent of gun control. Ultimately, they know he has no interest in the issue of firearms. But the NRA is nonetheless confident that Trump will honor the $30 million investment they made in him in 2016.

By tying its fortunes to Trump, the NRA is taking an incredible risk. Given how far advanced the investigations into Trump’s collusion with Russia (and Turkey) are, the gun lobby must see the president’s impeachment as a possibility. Plus, the NRA is just as connected to the Putin government as Trump is. Do they really think they’d emerge from a Trump impeachment — and the subsequent investigations by new government — unscathed?

My sense is the NRA knows that demographic trends are destroying its long-term viability (the gun industry’s market is overwhelmingly white men). I think they have hitched themselves to Trump because they need to. They have an aging membership (see #7 below) and have sharply restricted their ability to recruit with increasingly radical rhetoric. An America in which women and people of color hold equal reigns of leadership is terrifying to the NRA. They need a White America that will further deregulate their industry so they can continue to sell new (and lethal) products to an already saturated market. [Witness the NRA’s campaign on silencers as a prime example.]
 
 4) There were quite a few bonkers moments at the meeting, and Louisiana Representative Clay Higgins’ video message to NRA members was one of them. Higgins — who looks like an officer in Bull Connors’ service who just arrived in 2017 via time machine — spoke about his guns and then threatened Americans who wish to see tougher gun laws, saying, “MOLON LABE … You know where to find me.” Molon Labe [“Come and Take It”] is the classic expression of defiance so beloved by gun nuts. Essentially, what they are saying is, “If you pass a gun law I disagree with, and try to enforce that law against me, I will shoot and kill you.” The rule of law be damned.

This guy would scare Daredevil.

5) Where was Ted Nugent? Ted Nugent has served on the NRA board of directors for more than 20 years now. Has there ever been an NRA annual meeting that Ted failed to speak at, or at least show up to? I can’t remember any until this year in Atlanta.
 
Nugent posted a bizarre video to his Facebook page on Friday in which he was moderated, seemingly, by his wife Shemane. In the intro, Shemane tells NRA supporters, “I wanted to give you an opportunity to see in the flesh that Ted is not dead.” Nugent explains that liberals were disseminating “fake news” about him dying in a hunting accident. [Is that an actual thing?] Nugent repeatedly wiped his eyes in the video and looked out of it. At one point, Shemane mentions one of Nugent’s personal friends, which causes Ted to yell at the camera, “Aren’t you down at the NRA convention in Atlanta? I’m not. First time in 30 years. It ain’t right!” 
 
Next, Nugent exclaimed, “I did not dodge the draft. I went in for my physical. I was 18 years old. I had never heard of communism … I was clueless. I was completely obsessed with rock and roll.” He said he was actually talking about his friend “K.J.” taking illegal narcotics and soiling himself before a Vietnam draft physical in his infamous 1977 interview with High Times.
 
The next thing Ted wanted to clear up is that he is not a pedophile. He denied legally adopting an underage girl (17 year-old Pele Massa) from Hawaii in 1978 so he could have sex with her. He referred to some unnamed 26 year-old woman who he had a relationship with for nine years. According to Nugent, this woman wanted to smear him in the press by claiming he had intercourse with her when she was underage.

Nugent looked out of it in an April 28, 2017 video posted to his FB page to explain why he did not attend this year’s NRA Annual Meeting in Atlanta. It’s clear the NRA has clipped Nugent’s wings.

Finally, Nugent got to the issue of his racism [you knew this was coming, right?]. He trotted out the usual, “I like black music. I’ve hired black people” thing. But he moved on quickly and was soon calling President Obama “a Saul Alinsky puppet.” 
 
The whole spectacle was embarrassing. By the end of the video, you can see that Shemane is visibly agitated with Nugent for interrupting her constantly. The alleged purpose of the video was to explain to Nugent’s followers why he failed to attend the NRA meeting in Atlanta. “I’ve got my representative there. President Donald J. Trump is covering for me,” Nugent says in the video. He misidentifies NRA board member Allen West as “Allen North” and says that West, too, was speaking on his behalf.
 
My sense is that the NRA (after all these years) has finally sidelined Nugent. He was probably told not to discuss this, which is why Shemane moderates the video and Nugent makes his displeasure subtly known. Nugent can still rally the NRA base, but he is aging, increasingly unstable in his behavior, and a liability overall. 
 
 6) No one should take the sidelining of Nugent to mean that the NRA is done appealing to racists. Serving as an NRATV commentator during the 2017 meeting was Bill Whittle, formerly a writer with PJ media. Here’s what Tim Johnson of Media Matters told me about Whittle:

The NRA’s media operation at its annual meeting evidenced the growing enmeshment between the “alt right” and the NRA. Bill Whittle, who was hired by the NRA in January, co-anchored NRATV’s coverage of the meeting. Whittle, along with his co-anchor, were the most prominent faces of the NRA’s daylong broadcasts of the proceedings, which included coverage of Donald Trump’s address to the event. Whittle is someone who has promoted racist pseudoscience about intelligence, and crime and has made numerous racist remarks including calling black Americans willing “slaves” who commit voter fraud in exchange for welfare. These claims echo what we have been seeing from the “alt right” movement, which often attempts to place an “academic” veneer on a white nationalist agenda. During NRATV’s broadcast, Whittle interviewed Donald Trump Jr. and asked him a racially-charged question premised on the notion that President Obama was lazy. Whittle’s high profile during the meeting shows a disturbing advance in the NRA’s extremism and indicates how the group has been emboldened by the Trump presidency.

Whittle provided plenty of gristle for racist NRA members to chew on in Nugent’s absence.

Don’t worry, Ted. Bill Whittle (center) filled in for you.

7) During the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum, I took a series of screen shots when the camera would flash to the crowd. I could not find a person of color anywhere in this audience. Can you? #WonderBread

8) Certainly one of the most disturbing moments at the meeting was when NRA top lobbyist Chris Cox gifted former White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche and his 15 year-old son Drake with AR-15 assault rifles equipped with silencers. This might have been done in violation of federal laws governing the transfer of silencers given Drake’s age. During his remarks, Cox said the NRA gifted the AR-15s just to piss the media off. 
 
During his speech, Adam LaRoche spoke about walking away from a major league baseball contract to spend time with his son. Laroche quoted “Robert Horton” and said, “One of the greatest lessons he’s learned in life is that if your heart and soul are devoted on money, and searching for money, you’re going to be equally disappointed whether you get it or whether you don’t.”

With cold-blooded, multi-millionaire execs Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox watching LaRoche from the wings, the statement was positively bizarre and delivered with no sense of irony.

It’s not like anything could possibly go wrong giving a silenced AR-15 to a 15 year-old, right?

9) The NRA goes after Bernie and Millennials. For years, the NRA has gone surprisingly easy on presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, choosing instead to spray as much venom at Hillary Clinton as possible. 
 
That truce ended Friday, when Wayne LaPierre told attendees at the Leadership Forum the following:

Bernie Sanders was not a movement, as a fawning media called his campaign. Bernie is a political predator of young voters who were lied to by school teachers and college professors set up for his message of Big Government socialism. “Free, free, free for me!” No one told the truth about how all that free stuff was going to be paid for. It was all one big, fat lie.

Bernie fans, it might be time to rethink your support of the NRA’s “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” or as I prefer to call it, Gun Industry Immunity.

LaPierre also launched a surprising attack on Millennials in his speech, calling them “the uninformed, self-absorbed, self-minded generation.”
 
 10) It’s not just about guns. Anyone under the illusion that the National Rifle Association is a “single-issue organization” dealing solely with firearms needs to observe an NRA annual meeting.
 
During his speech, Donald Trump showed little inclination to talk about firearms. Instead, he promised the crowd he would build his Wall on the southern border (“to stop the wrong people”), talked about eradicating the MS-13 gang, and compared modern-day immigrants to the United States to the British attacking Concord, Massachusetts in 1775. It was a dog whistler’s paradise. [Trump bragged about his election victory, too, of course.]
 
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre also weighed in on a range of conservative hot-button issues that have nothing to do with guns. He railed against America’s public education system, describing it as socialist and insidious. He attacked our free media, portraying it as an enemy of the people.
 
The NRA and the conservative movement are symbiotically connected. David Keene is still very influential and Wayne LaPierre commands the obedience of Republicans with an angry army at his disposal. The NRA spent more money on Trump than his own PAC did. And like the conservative movement, the NRA has become increasingly radical, as we were reminded when Sheriff David A. Clarke took the stage on Friday and called Americans who disagree with the NRA “rat bastards.” Clarke is the guy who called Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists.”

Dmitry Rogozin’s buddy.

We can no longer divorce the issues of conservative politics and the NRA. They are inextricably aligned. And we must have a consciousness that all firearm and ammo purchases provide financial aid and comfort to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (the trade group for gun manufacturers) and the NRA (which receives direct corporate contributions from gun companies through its Ring of Freedom program), both of whom lobby for absolutist gun policies that cost lives on a daily basis.

*** I would be remiss if I did not say a HUGE thank you to all the gun violence prevention activists who protested the NRA this past weekend in Atlanta. Janel Green and the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice conducted a powerful “Die-In” in Woodruff Park on Friday just before Trump’s speech, then marched to the site of the NRA convention.

One gun violence survivor brought x-rays of a bullet lodged in his partner’s skull.

The following day, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense hosted another protest rally in Woodruff Park, where Congressman John Lewis spoke.

Where he goes, we follow.

It was a remarkable display of resistance!