The National Rifle Association (NRA) may not be a terrorist group, but it shares a lot in common with the world’s most notorious terrorist group.
In the wake of the slaughter of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the NRA’s vise-like grip on lawmakers has become painfully noticeable. During a tense CNN town hall in Sunrise, Florida, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) took the stage along with NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch while survivors of the massacre and parents of slain children spent hours battering the two with questions about their steadfast opposition to changing America’s gun laws.
While Rubio told members of the community who were present that he would reconsider his stances on gun control policies like raising the legal age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, and supported banning modifications that allow semi-automatic weapons to function as fully automatic (bump stocks), he stopped short of saying he would reject the NRA’s money in future campaigns.
— igorvolsky (@igorvolsky) February 22, 2018
This may be due to the overwhelming political power the NRA wields with its millions of dollars. As the Center for Responsive Politics reported, the group spent 96 percent of the roughly $50 million allocated for the 2016 election on just seven campaigns — that of then-candidate Donald Trump, and the campaigns of six Republican senators in hotly contested re-election bids. The NRA’s candidates won 6 out of 7 of those races.
However, the NRA’s scary level of influence in American politics may be better understood in the context of how the group tends to share many of the same characteristics as ISIS — the ruthless terrorist group wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. It’s worth taking a closer look in just how similar the two groups are in their tactics and strategy, and how they’re perceived by society.
1. Both ISIS and the NRA profit off of violence
Following ISIS’ initial push into Iraq and Syria in 2014, the group capitalized on the instability of the region to force residents under their control. Locals were quickly put to work digging for antiquities in the ancient ruins of cities and temples ISIS soldiers destroyed in battles with government forces, and those antiquities were then sold on the black market. A French security official told Newsweek that ISIS could make as much as $100 million in a year by selling stolen antiquities. ISIS’ business model became simple — the more instability ISIS could create in storied cities like Mosul and Aleppo, the more money the group could make by selling artifacts from the historic ruins of those cities.
The NRA, in the meantime, profits from surges in new memberships and gun sales in the wake of tragic mass shootings. In the month following the Sandy Hook massacre — when a gunman murdered 20 elementary school children and six teachers in 2012 — the NRA recruited 100,000 new members. At the time, an annual NRA membership cost $25, which meant the organization got another $2.5 million in just over a month. This comes on top of the money that gun manufacturers donate to the NRA, along with the money donated through portions of gun sales.
After each tragic mass shooting, NRA spokespeople encourage Americans to buy even more guns in media interviews. In one particularly callous example, NRA board member Charles Cotton said Rev. Clementa Pinckney cost the lives of his congregation by not voting for more relaxed gun laws as a state senator.
“He voted against concealed-carry,” Cotton wrote in a post on an online forum that was quickly deleted. “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”
2. The people both groups claim to represent actually hate them
While ISIS calls itself “The Islamic State,” Muslims actually despise ISIS. In a 2015 article for the Daily Beast, radio host and Muslim-American Dean Obeidallah described the universal feeling of loathing and hatred he and his fellow Muslims felt towards ISIS, who had just taken responsibility for the devastating attack in Paris that left 130 dead and hundreds more injured.
The response of Muslim American organizations in condemning the Paris attack has been swift… on Saturday morning leaders of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, which consists of many of the leading national Muslim American organizations, held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to do more than just condemn the Paris attack; they lashed out at ISIS.
“We are revolted by this heinous attack on civilians,” declared Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR. Awad added that ISIS is “neither Islamic nor a state,” calling for a “swift and methodical” response to ISIS.
Similarly, gun owners have been rejecting the NRA’s increasingly more obstinate political views after each deadly mass shooting. Despite identifying himself as a “lifelong firearm enthusiast” and “defender of the Second Amendment,” gun owner Patrick Tomlinson took the organization to task in a 2017 column for US News, saying the NRA’s aggressive deregulation campaigns will only lead to more violence in the future.
“A responsible NRA would be working for, not against, universal background checks on all firearms sales. As a responsible gun owner, it’s my job to ensure anyone I transfer a weapon to is in fact legally permitted to possess one,” Tomlinson wrote. “That’s the bare minimum due diligence that should be expected of me, and the vast majority of Americans and even gun owners agree. But not the NRA.”
“An NRA worried about guns in the hands of criminals would be working for, not against, better data-sharing between federal and state agencies to tighten the net on felons and domestic abusers who have previously slipped through the cracks. However, even this is somehow a bridge too far for these nut cases,” he continued.
3. The NRA and ISIS both love to make dark propaganda videos
ISIS loves to broadcast its brutality to the world in slickly produced videos featuring executions of enemies at the hands of masked men wielding fearsome weapons. But ISIS has also gotten creative in its propaganda, with one of its newer videos using scenes from blockbuster movies like “Olympus Has Fallen” and “London Has Fallen” depicting a hypothetical invasion of Washington, DC, the White House exploding, and the London Bridge falling into the Thames.
“The Istishhadi [martyr] starts from his den…with the intention of death…seeking his prey…killing and dying,” a caption from the video reads.
As weird and creepy as the ISIS video is, a recruitment video produced by the NRA in 2017 is also uniquely disturbing. In the 1-minute ad, spokeswoman Dana Loesch looks at the camera and angrily blames the media, educational and cultural institutions, and former President Barack Obama for the collapse of conservative America as we know it while images of Occupy Wall Street protests and Antifa marches flash across the screen.
“The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth,” Loesch says at the end of the video.
4. Both groups deliberately intimidate journalists
Journalists who dig deep into the practices of powerful groups are used to threats. Nonetheless, the tactics used by both ISIS and the NRA to scare journalists away from uncovering their secrets are more than a little intimidating.
As NBC News reported, a small group of citizen journalists called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently have been documenting ISIS’ war crimes up until two men affiliated with the group were captured and beheaded by ISIS fighters. While NBC was speaking to the brother of one of the victims, the man received a text from the man who killed his brother, saying, “your turn is coming.”
That message from the ISIS executioner is strikingly similar to an ominous message the NRA sent to the New York Times in 2017, through a video featuring Dana Loesch. While the organization insisted the message of the video was about a confrontation in “the battle of ideas,” the intense tone of the video prompted questions about whether or not the group, which has at least 5 million gun-toting, dues-paying members, was suggesting physical harm would come to the New York Times.
“Consider this the shot across your proverbial bow,” Loesch says to the camera. “We’re going to laser focus on your so-called honest pursuit of truth. In short: We’re coming for you.”
5. They both expertly use social media to recruit and engage followers
One reason ISIS was able to convince so many people so quickly to give up their lives and move to a war-torn region was due to its proficiency with social media. In 2014, CBS reported that approximately 3,000 people from Europe, Canada, and the United States became ISIS fighters after the group’s outreach efforts on social media.
The terror group now has its own multilingual media arm, Al Hayat, which is behind the creation and distribution of glossy magazines and highly produced slick videos. ISIS even uses drones and GoPros to appeal to the Western eye.
A “mujatweet,” a short promotional video, shows a softer side of jihad. In one such video, a Belgian hands out ice cream to excited Syrian children.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA’s social media team was hard at work countering the online messaging of pro-gun control groups like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and their calls to implement stricter background checks and weapon regulations. The impressive size and reach of its Facebook audience — which AdAge found was, at the time, larger than many household-name brands like Hostess, J Crew, and Ikea USA — made it easier for the group’s posts to reach a large online audience with relative ease.
But the NRA’s strategy of rankling feathers on social media to have its message repeated ad nauseam in larger mainstream outlets seems to be working. In a New Yorker article about the video of Dana Loesch attacking the New York Times, editor Michael Luo pointed out how ginning up controversy for increased reach was part and parcel of the NRA communications strategy:
An axiom of digital video strategy nowadays is that different types of videos are better suited for different platforms. This particular segment, it turned out, worked well for social media… Loesch’s vigorous social-media jousting with detractors, who thought she’d threatened at one point in the video to “fist” the Times, helped boost traffic… Perhaps most important for the N.R.A.’s communications shop, the video garnered an avalanche of “earned media”—writeups in the Guardian, Slate, USA Today, Newsweek, Vice, Salon, and elsewhere.
6. They have a history of seizing weapons from political opponents
Even though deliberately arming ISIS was likely not the intent of Barack Obama’s strategy to arm Syrian rebels fighting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, American weapons nevertheless found their way into the hands of ISIS.
A report by Conflict Armament Research cited by USA Today last December claims that “sophisticated weapons,” including anti-tank weapons that had just left the factory, were found among the 40,000 other weapons in the ISIS armory. This includes tanks and artillery the group obtained in its initial siege of Iraq and Syria. Conflict Armament Research says the weapons may have been spoils of war, but may have just as likely been bought from rebel groups the U.S. supplied several years ago.
Even though the NRA of today isn’t trying to disarm anyone, the group’s history shows how prejudices held by past NRA leaders have been weaponized as a means of subjugating people of color. Right around the same time the “Black Codes” were passed in the post-Civil War South that made it illegal for former slaves to own guns — prompting the Ku Klux Klan’s predecessors to enforce the codes by raiding black homesteads and seizing firearms — the National Rifle Association was founded.
As The New Republic reported in 2013, former NRA President Karl Frederick was the driving force behind model legislation in the early 20th century to implement gun control measures in inner cities after incidents of gun violence from Italian immigrants. Following Frederick’s law, concealed carry permits were only granted if the applicant was deemed “suitable” and had “proper reason for carrying.”
Wouldn’t you know it, even Martin Luther King — who was assassinated by a white man with a sniper rifle — wasn’t given a concealed carry permit despite facing death threats on a daily basis.
Determining who was “suitable” under these licensing schemes was left to the discretion of local law enforcement. Predictably, racial minorities and disfavored immigrants were usually deemed unsuitable, no matter how serious a threat they faced. In 1956, after his house was firebombed, Martin Luther King Jr. was turned down when he applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in Montgomery, Alabama.
7. They both target children for recruitment
It should be said up-front that ISIS and the NRA’s child recruitment efforts strongly differ in terms of the goals each group wants to achieve. While ISIS aggressively recruits child soldiers to become martyrs in their quest to establish a Caliphate, the NRA invites children as young as 15 to become junior members (most likely for the purpose of having them eventually become dues-paying lifetime members).
In a hastily deleted tweet from 2014, the @NRAWomen account posted an article from Women’s Outdoor News called “7 ways children can have fun at the shooting range.” The article itself is an innocuous list of various fun targets children can use at a gun range (zombie targets, mutant targets, etc.) and how much each target costs. The reason @NRAWomen may have pulled the tweet so suddenly could have been due to it being in bad taste, considering there were more than 30 gun-related deaths and injuries at high schools and universities in 2013 alone.
While Americans grieve the loss of the students in Parkland, Americans should also consider the tremendous power special interest groups like the NRA have in our government, and ask themselves at the voting booth this November if those groups should continue to wield such vast influence over our elected officials.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: As of February 14, 2018, Grit Post will no longer publish the names of mass shooters, and we discourage other media outlets from doing so in order to avoid contributing to future mass shootings by making killers famous.)
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.