Something rather unusual happened over the past week: the National Rifle Association, America's foremost gun lobby, publicly criticized fellow firearm activists as "downright weird." Then, several days later, it retracted the disapproving commentary and assured the groups that they had the NRA's full support.
What's going on here? Normally the NRA is the very definition of an organization that speaks softly and carries a large stick, intimidating lawmakers but keeping internal disputes internal.
But lately one part of the gun debate has shifted to difficult terrain for the NRA. Activists in Texas have staged demonstrations where they show up at local stores and restaurants – and even, in one case, a city hall – carrying loaded semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. (Their goal: to win support for the open carrying of handguns, currently prohibited under state law.)
Such displays are legal but not exactly wise. A new gun-control group – Moms Demand Action Against Gun Sense in America – launched campaigns to pressure the companies involved to ask patrons to stop carrying guns on their premises. In quick succession, the restaurant chains Jack in the Box, Chili's, Sonic and Chipotle did just that.
Then, on May 30, an extraordinary statement appeared on the website of the NRA's lobbying arm. "Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners," the statement said. For onlookers, it can be "downright scary." Five days later, however, the statement disappeared. In its place was a message from the NRA's chief lobbyist, who described it as "a mistake" and apologized for any confusion it had caused.
The tension here is between gun-rights extremists who believe that carrying guns in public will somehow help acclimatize people to such sights and gun-rights lobbyists who know that such actions will backfire.
For an insight into how the NRA views the world, there's no better guide than an April podcast posted on a Texas website devoted to the open carrying of handguns. It's very long – an hour and 40 minutes – but full of gems. In it, C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, one of the groups behind the demonstrations, squares off against Alice Tripp, a longtime lobbyist for a Texas affiliate of the NRA, and Charles Cotton, a member of the NRA's national board of directors.
Mr. Cotton says that NRA members and gun-rights activists make up a very small percentage of the overall population in Texas. "We are still outnumbered," he says, not by gun-control activists but by "the vast, vast majority" who belong to neither camp. It's that swath which is going to be influenced by the open-carry demonstrations, Mr. Cotton says. "So that's where the danger comes in."
Ms. Tripp sounds deeply frustrated. She says that Republicans in the Texas state legislature are asking her to stop the demonstrations, and that the mayor of one city was "absolutely incensed." Such activities "are harming the issue. I can't be more blunt."
(For comparison: in Texas, gun-rights activists are agitating for the ability to openly carry handguns without any permit or training. In Canada, to openly carry handguns, individuals must receive a relatively rare "authorization to carry;" such permissions are restricted by law to people who require firearms for their occupation or for the "protection of life.")
Another notable aspect of the conversation is the complete disdain for gun-control activists, who are portrayed as hapless. Mr. Cotton says that assault-weapons bans are regularly proposed in the Texas state legislature but they're easily dispatched. "We kill it over a hamburger and a Coke, it takes that much effort," he says.
"The only weaponry [gun-control activists] have in their arsenal is emotion," Ms. Tripp says, then adds in a mocking tone, as though mimicking her opponents: "I don't feel safe, you're scaring the little children, what does anybody need with an assault weapon?"
What does scare Ms. Tripp, however, is not gun-control activists but demographic change in Texas as new residents arrive from other parts of the country. "They're not going to be our kind of people. They're going to come from California, New York [and] they're going to bring their laws with them," she says. "I want everything we can get while we can get it."
The internal conflict within the NRA points to a broader struggle – between those who want to normalize guns as part of everyday life and those who believe American society is plenty armed already. The NRA doesn't lose many battles, but recent events suggest that it's not clear it can win this one.