The NRA is even more extreme than it was just a few years ago. And that's saying something. We've seen the shift in their rhetoric and in their policy positions. They just elected a new president, James Porter, who called the Civil War "The War of Northern Aggression," who referred to Barack Obama as a "fake president," and who believes that one of our highest priorities should be to train and arm all our citizens so that, when the time comes, they can "fight tyranny."
The NRA has also been moving right on policy. Given the recent debates, we can see this most clearly on the matter of universal background checks. After the mass murders at Columbine in 1999, the NRA took out a full page ad in USA Today that included the following statement:
"We believe it's reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops."
Now, of course, the NRA considers such background checks to be a step toward the confiscation of guns and the very tyranny its new president sees around every corner. What's going on here?
There's no one simple reason why the NRA has moved even further to the right in recent years. Certainly, the right wing overall has become more extreme and paranoid since the election (and reelection) of President Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center has plenty of material on the most extreme among them.
But within the gun movement, we are seeing something very specific, something that has a parallel within Republican electoral politics as a whole. In the last few years, conservative -- not moderate but conservative -- Republican senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Robert Bennett of Utah were defeated in reelection bids by insurgents who have come at them from the right. This is exactly what is happening to the NRA.
I didn't see much room to the right of the NRA. At least I figured that any group to their right would have to be so extreme as to be unable to achieve any kind of influence. Wow, was I wrong. Gun Owners of America, led by its executive director, Larry Pratt, has done exactly that. The New York Times gave them a large degree of "credit" for mobilizing conservative opposition to the recent gun control package on Capitol Hill.
And I don't think the word "extremist" truly captures where Pratt stands. Pratt's been fomenting hatred and paranoia about President Obama's desire to create a private army, and claimed that the president was "definitely capable" of using that army to start a race war.
The things Pratt has said should have made him 100 percent persona non grata to any senator or congressman. That he and his organization were able to spearhead a lobbying campaign in the halls of Congress tells you everything you need to know about the Republican Party's tolerance of hateful, bigoted extremism.
But this kind of extremism represents a real challenge to the NRA. If they don't step up, they could lose credibility and eventually even leadership of the gun movement to a group like Gun Owners of America. GOA's website prominently features a statement from former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the gold standard for extremism among national politicians, praising it as "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington."
Notice who that praise is aimed at. The implication is that the NRA is a bunch of weak-kneed compromisers, squishy moderates. You want a real gun rights organization, then come over to the GOA.
There's no formal primary, no election day where the NRA and the GOA are on competing ballot lines. But make no mistake that there is a competition. The NRA has a huge head start, and should have no trouble winning. But they aren't taking any chances. The NRA won't be out-crazied by anyone.