The 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting posed a challenge for the National Rifle Association (NRA). The nation was not yet accustomed to mass shootings in schools, and the NRA had to decide how to respond to public horror. Now NPR has obtained two and a half hours of recordings of internal NRA deliberations on how to proceed, deliberations that laid the groundwork for how the NRA would respond to every mass shooting since then.
The NRA’s national convention was scheduled for just days after Columbine, and it was close by in Denver. The group’s leaders debated cancelling it, but ultimately went ahead, albeit with a scaled-down event. One exchange quoted by NPR lays out the core of the debate.
NRA official Jim Land: “I got to tell you, we got to think this thing through, because if we tuck tail and run, we're going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there.”
PR Consultant Tony Makris: “That's one very good argument, Jim. On the other side, if you don't appear to be deferential in honoring the dead, you end up being a tremendous s***head who wouldn't tuck tail and run, you know? So it's a double-edged sword.”
The NRA, of course, went with tremendous s***head, and has been doubling down on that position for 22 years.
The recordings make clear that it was the NRA calling the shots. The gun industry was not pressuring the organization one way or the other. In fact, the head of an industry trade group had “said they stand ready to help us orchestrate whatever we want to do. They're just waiting to know.” Then-Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, wanted the NRA to “secretly provide them with talking points.” It was up to the NRA to decide what direction the gun lobby and the Republican Party would go following a deadly school shooting.
Privately, the NRA’s leaders acknowledged how very bad Columbine looked for the organization, and how bad its annual convention, with the attendant gun show, would look. “Don't anybody kid yourself about this great macho thing of going down there and showing our chest and showing how damn tough we are ... We are in deep s*** on this deal ... And so anything we do here is going to be a matter of trying to decide the best of a whole bunch of very, very bad choices,” said one.
”At that same period where they're going to be burying these children, we're going to be having media ... trying to run through the exhibit hall, looking at kids fondling firearms, which is going to be a horrible, horrible, horrible juxtaposition,” said another. But the exhibit hall was important to draw in people outside of the NRA’s most committed members, a third person said, because, “If you pull down the exhibit hall, that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting, and you're going to have the wackos ... with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of, of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And, and it's gonna, it's gonna be the worst thing you can imagine.”
At that convention, the NRA laid the course it has followed ever since following mass shootings: Attack the media and insist that it’s disrespectful to the people murdered by guns to discuss the role of guns in their murders.
“Why us? Because their story needs a villain. They want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief, to provide riveting programming to run between commercials for cars and cat food,” then-NRA President Charlton Heston said of the media. “The dirty secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves.”
And because the NRA was committed to ensuring that there would be lots of fresh graves for decades to come, that message has gotten a regular workout. But back then in 1999, with 13 dead at Columbine, they knew just how bad it looked for them, and how important it was to get the right message to get people to look past the gun lobby’s role in that mass killing.