Why the NRA finally turned against those gun-toting activists in Chipotle

They represent a real threat to the nation's powerful gun lobby

Gun rights
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Eric Gay))

The National Rifle Association is getting some credit, from some unlikely places, for reprimanding a group of gun rights activists who "crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness" by carrying high-powered semi-automatic rifles into Chipotle and other fast food restaurants. The reaction to this news was set tonally by Talking Points Memo's Eric Lach, who approvingly noted the "amazing statement" from the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.

And it is kind of an amazing statement. Here are some more highlights:

It is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. Let's not mince words, not only is it rare, it's downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one's cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates....

More to the point, it's just not neighborly, which is out of character for the big-hearted residents of Texas. Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners. That's not the Texas way. And that's certainly not the NRA way. [NRA-ILA]

It's possible that the NRA really is offended at the un-"neighborly," small-hearted conduct of these open-carry activists. But a much more plausible explanation for this unusual rhetorical rap on the knuckles is that the NRA is worried about how these fringe elements reflect on the NRA. In fact, you don't really even have to read in between the lines.

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Addressing the "attention-hungry few who thought only of themselves and not of those who might be affected by their behavior," the NRA statement reminds gun owners that "poor judgment" has consequences. And those consequences can be "lasting and consequential, such as turning an undecided voter into an antigun voter because of causing that person fear or offense."

This is the tightrope the NRA has to walk. Most of the NRA's purported 4.3 million members are probably hunters and handgun owners who would agree that carrying your loaded AR-15 into a restaurant is ill-mannered. The NRA gets its muscle from memberships dues and large contributions from gun manufacturers and retailers, but it draws its legitimacy from its millions of members.

The NRA's promise to those members is that it will fight to keep the government out of their gun cabinets (or safes, hopefully), so they can hunt or protect themselves from assailants. That latter reason has become especially important over last 15 or so years.

As a poll from the Pew Research Center shows, from 1999 to 2013, the number of people who said they owned guns for protection grew by a staggering 22 percent, supplanting "hunting" as the number one reason behind gun ownership. Meanwhile, the scant number of people who cited the "Constitution" for owning guns fell by half, to 2 percent.


Leaving aside how true it is for a minute, "safety" is one of the NRA's most effective messages. As another 2013 poll from Pew shows, the line that best undercuts calls for gun reform is that stricter gun laws would make it more difficult to protect yourself or your family.

The problem is, Open Carry Texas activists wielding semi-automatic weapons in a burrito joint make people feel unsafe. So while more people than not already oppose letting others carry guns openly into restaurants, the activists who do so aren't just promoting a controversial law. They're also undercutting the NRA's most effective argument: we'll help you stay safe. With Congress friendly territory, OCT and other aggressive gun proponents are probably the NRA's biggest existential threat.

Are there people who would like the government to take away your military-grade AK-47 knockoff with a 50-round magazine? Of course, and they're not crazy for thinking that's an inappropriate weapon to have outside of a war zone, much less in a burrito eatery. But nobody thinks that's a politically realistic goal at the moment. At best (or worst), it might someday be harder to buy or sell such guns, especially at gun shows.

"Firearm owners face enough challenges these days; we don't need to be victims of friendly fire," the NRA concludes. The second half, at least, rings true.

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