After more than a decade of waning influence, gun control advocates thought their moment had arrived. A madman had stalked the halls of an elementary school with an assault rifle, leaving an unthinkable horror in his wake: 20 slain children and six teachers and staff members who died trying to protect them.
"We can't tolerate this anymore," President Barack Obama said three days after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?"
A few days after that, Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, also argued that the U.S. was failing to protect the nation's schoolchildren. But where the president was sorrowful, LaPierre was furious. He unleashed a diatribe against the media, which he blamed for celebrating violent culture, giving rise to the Adam Lanzas of the world. The media need to acknowledge their own culpability, he said.
"Rather than face their own moral failings," he said, "the media demonize gun owners."
He proposed sending armed guards into every school in America. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.
At the time, LaPierre's response -- angry, defensive, refusing to acknowledge that the easy availability of guns might in any way play a role in the scourge of gun violence -- seemed delusional. Disastrous, maybe. I watched his speech in shock, wondering if I was witnessing the beginning of the end of the NRA's chokehold on American politics.
After all, on its face, LaPierre's argument was absurd. Violent movies and video games are popular throughout the world, but only in the U.S., which has some of the laxest gun laws of any developed country, do people shoot and kill their fellow citizens with such numbing regularity. The gun death rate in the U.S. is 10 times higher than in Germany or Australia, which have much stricter laws; 40 times higher than in the United Kingdom, where it is nearly impossible for a private citizen to legally obtain a firearm, according to a 2013 study.
Two years later, the NRA's grip on the American body politic is stronger than ever. The gun organization easily scuttled a federal bill that would have expanded background checks and banned certain types of assault rifles and ammunition magazines. Though gun control advocates, backed by an influx of new money, have achieved some successes, the NRA is on a roll.
It has expanded its reach, backing laws in more than two dozen states that ease gun restrictions. Missouri, for example, recently lowered the minimum age for openly carrying a weapon to 19 from 21 and relaxed open-carry restrictions. Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers approved what detractors call the "guns everywhere" law, a sweeping measure that makes it possible to carry guns inside bars, restaurants and churches. A proposed bill in Florida would make it easier to carry firearms on college campuses. (The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment).
In hindsight, it was ridiculous to think that the NRA's power might be on the decline. It remains one of most potent lobbying forces in American politics, its power achieved primarily through its ability to quickly mobilize its legion of fervent supporters.
More surprising is the fact that the NRA isn't just winning the money and influence fight -- it is winning the rhetorical war as well. Since Newtown, public support for stricter gun laws has ebbed. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time in decades, there is more support for gun rights than for gun control.
The effectiveness of the NRA's messaging machine may come as a shock in urban areas and liberal redoubts, and in the homes of gun owners who find the notion of some stepped-up restrictions a reasonable proposition.
I grew up in the South, have owned both handguns and rifles, and was left alone in a blind in the woods to hunt deer for the first time when I was nine. (Instead, I pretended to blast Stormtroopers.) A few winters ago, I happily spent an afternoon blasting clay pigeons out of the sky with a shotgun.
I acknowledge that shooting can be fun. But I can't see why anyone would need an assault rifle for any legitimate purpose. For home defense, a revolver or pistol is far more practical, assuming one's foe isn't a SWAT team. For hunting, shotguns and rifles are appropriate tools. Nor should anyone who has obeyed the law -- a group that includes the overwhelming majority of gun owners -- have anything to fear from increased measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Some people opposed to new restrictions are against anything they feel might limit their ability to fight off agents of a tyrannical state. This, essentially, is the dark undercurrent of the guns-everywhere message: that armed rebellion against the U.S. government may be necessary.
But most people, I believe, are swayed to oppose new gun restrictions by a reality that the NRA itself has helped create. Because of the NRA, the chance of meaningful gun reform in the foreseeable future is basically nil. The nation is awash in guns; it will remain so. Given the reality of living in a country with as many guns as citizens, people are left with a choice: carry a weapon, with the hope of preventing such an occurrence -- or do nothing.
For a sizable portion of the American public, the latter option just doesn't make any sense. Why set yourself up to become a victim? If confronted with an armed assailant, wouldn't you prefer to have a gun, too? This argument is supported, in some cases, by real-life evidence. In some cases, a good guy with a gun has indeed stopped a bad guy with a gun.
In a study published in 1996, researchers examined all shootings over a three-year span in the cities of Memphis, Seattle and Galveston and found that in 21 instances, the person was acting in self defense.
People in rural areas, where the nearest police officer might be far away, or in deeply violent communities, where cops are not trusted, might be especially inclined to figure that they need to look out for themselves.
If I lived in a neighborhood where a stroll in the park might be fraught with risk, I might feel the same way. I, too, might be inclined to ignore the other part of the gun violence equation: what happens when a firearm is used for some purpose other than personal protection.
But this argument begins to fray under any serious examination of how guns are actually used. In that same 1996 study, researchers found that guns were four times more likely to be involved in an accident than used for self-defense. In 78 of the shootings, the victim was a spouse, intimate friend or other family member.
The number of shootings "not legally justified" over the time frame examined by the researchers was 1,441.
The NRA is winning the gun control argument by exploiting the rational fears of people who live in a heavily armed society. But the NRA's math is all wrong.
Good guys with guns do sometimes stop a bad guy with a gun. Unfortunately, that gun is even more likely to kill someone the good guy loves.