At a rally on Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump told a cheering audience that maybe there’s something “Second Amendment people” can do if Hillary Clinton wins the White House and gets to select the next Supreme Court justice — a remark many are interpreting as a not-so-veiled threat of assassination.
It didn’t take long for the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest group of “Second Amendment people,” to jump on board.
A little over an hour after the comments, the NRA tweeted its support for the Republican nominee, who it enthusiastically endorsed earlier this year.
— NRA (@NRA) August 9, 2016
— NRA (@NRA) August 9, 2016
The group took a cue from the Trump campaign. Both the NRA and the campaign quickly shifted the discussion to gun owners’ “great political power,” claiming that all Trump meant is that they will band together to defeat Clinton in November.
Though it’s often difficult to make sense of his garbled rhetoric, Trump did not tell the audience in Wilmington, North Carolina that Second Amendment supporters should band together to vote against Clinton. He specifically said that gun owners could do something to stop her after she’s elected and gets the power to nominate Supreme Court justices.
The comments are new for Trump, and of course shocking coming from a major party’s presidential nominee. But it’s not a new idea for gun owners and the groups that defend them.
Trump’s “flub” echoes a claim the NRA has been making for years: if or when the government becomes tyrannical, people should arm themselves and lead a violent insurrection.
When did the NRA begin calling for armed insurrection against the government?
For more than 100 years after its establishment in 1871, the NRA was one of the country’s biggest pro-gun control organizations. For most of its history, the group represented American sport shooters and hunters, focused on safety and conservation, and was led by a mainstream, bipartisan group of officers.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the NRA that we know today emerged.
That year, pro-gun libertarians within the organization staged a hostile leadership coup, demanding that the group reshape itself to recognize people’s widespread distrust of the government. At the NRA’s annual meeting in Ohio, the radicals wore matching orange-blaze hunting caps and staged a takeover from the floor, ousting the previous leadership and demanding that the group do everything it can to fight gun control legislation. The event is now known as the “Revolt in Cincinnati.”
It was at that same time that the group turned overtly political, aligning with the Republican Party, and began pushing its narrative of armed insurrection as a solution to political issues.
“That was really the turning point from being a hunting and sporting organization to being a lobbying organization that started to distort and pervert the Second Amendment,” Shannon Watts, director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, told ThinkProgress. “This is not your grandfather’s NRA.”
The new NRA shaped the narrative that liberal politicians push gun control legislation with the ultimate goal of confiscating, and then entirely disarming, the population. If lawmakers are able to control access to guns, the NRA claims, we will see government tyranny.
“This is not your grandfather’s NRA.”
That thinking has propelled all of the NRA’s political maneuvers over the last four decades. The strategy has largely proven successful, with courts and lawmakers — many beholden to the group’s campaign contributions — siding with the organization.
In June 2008, the Supreme Court issued a decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, one of the most prominent pro-gun rulings in the court’s history. In its ruling, the conservative majority endorsed the NRA’s reading of the Second Amendment and specifically affirmed the right to “assure the existence of a ‘citizens’ militia’ as a safeguard against tyranny.”
In the eight years since that ruling, countless people have promoted or executed violent acts in the name of safeguarding against tyranny. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has chronicled a comprehensive list, which includes incidents like when a 22-year-old man shot former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, decrying the government’s “treasonous laws.” That shooting occurred a few years after a Tennessee man shot and killed two people at a progressive church, calling it “a symbolic killing“ because he really “wanted to kill…every Democrat in the Senate and House.”
According to Watts, the NRA has officially interpreted the Second Amendment to be a “manual for vigilante justice.”
Has the NRA explicitly called for the assassination of political leaders?
When the nation’s largest gun lobby is calling for people to arm themselves against the government, it’s not surprising that notable pro-gun leaders have explicitly called for the death of Democratic lawmakers. In recent years, the threats have started to become commonplace.
In 2012, Ted Nugent, a prominent NRA board member, wrote on his Facebook page that if Second Amendment supporters didn’t get their “freedom,” they would demand the “evil carcasses” of President Obama and other notable Democrats.
This year, he shared a video depicting Bernie Sanders literally shooting and killing Clinton during a debate on gun control. “ I got your guncontrol right here bitch!” Nugent wrote.
And earlier this year, Larry Pratt — who is not associated with the NRA but instead leads an even more extreme group, Gun Owners of America — claimed that if Democrats win the presidential election and nominate an anti-gun rights Supreme Court justice, firearms owners will have to “resort to the bullet box.”
Why would Trump mimic the NRA’s language?
Since launching his campaign and receiving the NRA endorsement, Trump — who once favored gun control — has wholeheartedly embraced the group’s legislative agenda. As Watts noted, he is “very proud of his NRA endorsement.”
After his controversial remarks on Tuesday, Trump went on to tout his and his sons’ active NRA memberships, attempting to earn his place among the “Second Amendment people” he just called to arms.
The NRA has been equally good to Trump. Recently, the group spent $3 million on a television ad that debuted in swing states shortly after Trump’s comments on Tuesday. In the ad, the NRA claims that a Clinton presidency would leave people “defenseless.”
Trump was not the first member of his campaign to imply that voters should resort to violence rather than become “defenseless.” Al Badasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and Trump surrogate, is currently being investigated by the Secret Service after said during a radio interview last month that Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
But when Trump takes up the language, his audience is far larger, and the likelihood of “Second Amendment people” taking him seriously is greater.
“Rhetoric is dangerous and words matter,” Watts said. “We’ve seen when rhetoric has resulted in the injury or assassination of political leaders…. For Donald Trump to stoke that is really par for the course, given that he’s been endorsed by the NRA.”