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The NRA's Emperor Has No Clothes

For two decades now, the legend of the National Rifle Association has grown in Washington. They were the most feared lobby of all, as influential and professionally run as the AARP or AIPAC but with the literal firepower behind them to enhance the aura of intimidation. They could get just about everything they wanted. Republican candidates came to their conventions to pay annual tribute: "This fine organization is sometimes called a single-issue group. That’s high praise when the single issue is freedom," said Mitt Romney in his speech to the group in April. Meanwhile, even liberal Democrats tip-toed around the group as if it was the big troll hiding under the bridge. In 2010, House Democrats added an explicit NRA carve-out to their failed legislation requiring disclosure of donors to outside groups buying campaign ads.

But this cloak of power was stripped away today at NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre's press conference on the Newtown shootings, revealing the NRA as a lobby with no clothes, or at least nothing but a holster strapped to the ankle (would that count as open carry?). LaPierre's rambling statement on the shootings wasn't really any more more far-out than anything else he's been saying the past few years. ("All of what we know is good and right about America, all of it could be lost if Barack Obama is reelected," he said earlier this year.) But this was the first time many in Washington and across the country had actually focused squarely on him and his organization in a long time, and this newfound focus, combined with the post-Newtown context in which LaPierre was speaking, was enough to make the NRA seem utterly, surreally amateurish and out of touch. You could all but hear the question rising around Washington: We've been letting ourselves be led around by these guys?

See also: "A Guide to the Seven Craziest Quotes from the NRA's Press Conference on School Violence"

It was hard to say what was most tone-deaf about the statement, the first such one that the NRA has ever given after a mass shooting. The call to install armed guards in every American schoolhouse? "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The call to develop a national database of the mentally ill (while continuing to resist efforts to register and track guns, of course)? The shifting of blame to an entertainment industry that, irresponsible as it may be in its glorification of violence, has hardly less of a hold in countries with vastly lower levels of gun homicides? "Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?" LaPierre asked. And isn't the gun industry profiting hugely from people who can act on those fantasies to stock up on their own private arsenals—and in fact marketing their products on specifically those grounds, as magical testosterone-enhancers?

Above all, of course, there was the utter absence of any gesture toward the sort of new regulation that could mitigate if not prevent future Newtowns, and that many, many gun owners would be glad to support, whether it's limits on military-style rifles, expanded magazine clips, or closing of the gunshow loophole and other blatant gaps in existing requirements for background checks to make sure guns don't end up in the wrong hands. This was profoundly startling to those of us who have become used to lobbies and special interests adept at playing the game of public relations and tactical compromise—heck, even Wall Street was willing to accept some new restraints on its behavior post–financial crash.

But the gun lobby has carried on unchallenged for so long now that such instincts must seem completely foreign and unnecessary to it, leaving it looking hopelessly clueless and callous when the moment screams out for such gestures. This is, in part, a product of the bubble mindset that takes hold anytime a subculture drifts from the mainstream, as is so plainly happening with gun enthusiasts in this country. The numbers are clear: An ever-smaller proportion of Americans own guns, but Americans who do own guns are buying ever more of them. Meanwhile, gun ownership is breaking down along ever-sharper partisan lines, exacerbating the sort of self-reinforcement and lack of perspective that comes with any sort of political self-segregation. This is how you end up with comments from rank and file gun owners this week that are hardly less clueless than what LaPierre said today, such as this retort from a North Carolina man, a local police officer, in today's Washington Post: "I don’t think I should have to give up my Bushmaster because a guy flipped out and killed a bunch of babies.”

It is also, however, the result of a political establishment that has for a while now failed to recognize the ramifications of this self-segregation: The further the gun lobby drifted into its own world, the less political risk there was in confronting it. And here the fault falls particularly on Democrats, the party that is most inclined to back serious gun control but over and over shrank from the issue. In hindsight, it's hard to wonder if this was the result of a fateful misreading of the political landscape. Again and again, Democrats read painful defeats as grand lessons about the danger of taking on gun control, when closer scrutiny suggests otherwise. They chalked their 1994 wipeout up to the assault weapons ban, when it was driven just as much by the backlash to Hillarycare, congressional ethical lapses and more. They attributed Al Gore's election-deciding loss of West Virginia and Tennessee to his gun control talk, even though he in fact spoke very mildly on the issue and those losses were part of a broader, decades-long, demographic-driven shift of the upland South and Appalachia to the Republican column. They simply ceded the field to the gun lobby, assuming a level of influence, savvy and popular support far greater than what it possessed in reality.

Today, that reality was exposed for all to see, and it was hard to watch. Not least because it was, in a way, an indictment of us all.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis