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Threatened by youth movement, NRA exploits racial divisions

The video, featuring Killer Mike (left) was billed by the National Rifle Association as “The Gun Conversation You Need To See.”
The video, featuring Killer Mike (left) was billed by the National Rifle Association as “The Gun Conversation You Need To See.”(NRA TV via Youtube)

WASHINGTON — The National Rifle Association billed the video as “The Gun Conversation You Need To See,” a low-key intro that belied the inflammatory, racially laden messages the lobbying powerhouse is deploying in the wake of the latest school shooting spree.

The NRA’s video featured Killer Mike, an outspoken African-American activist and rapper who gained fame as a political surrogate for Bernie Sanders on the 2016 presidential circuit, speaking with Colion Noir, the NRA’s most prominent black spokesman.

They agreed on one thing: Gun-control activists — embodied most recently by students marching on Washington — are ignoring black Americans.

Other content on the NRA’s video website accuses one outspoken Parkland, Fla., student of displaying his “white privilege.’’

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Black people “can’t continue to be a lackey,” Killer Mike said in the video, using words he later said he regretted.

Antigun activists, the rapper said, are “going to progress us into slavery.”

The video was the most striking example of a concerted effort by the NRA during the last week to use race as a dividing line in the debate over gun control.

By casting the students from Parkland, whose classmates were recently gunned down by a mass shooter, as just more out-of-touch white liberal lobbyists, the NRA is making an overt racial appeal to nonwhites to reject the wave of antigun protests sweeping the country. The NRA itself is an overwhelmingly white organization with a fraught racial history, but the organization is now attempting to capitalize on existing fears among blacks and Hispanics that gun-control advocates do not sufficiently emphasize shootings in cities that overwhelmingly affect minority neighborhoods.

It is both a blunt racial appeal and a sophisticated strategy rife with coded language.

“They only want to hear from black people who agree with gun control,” Noir said in a video released Saturday, the day of March for Our Lives rallies in Washington, Boston, and around the country. In other videos, the NRA seemed to push the idea that people who live in inner cities should arm themselves against gangs, not succumb to gun restrictions.

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NRA experts said the new strategy could be a sign of an increasingly fearful organization. After the mid-February shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, student activists have presented the American gun lobby with its most formidable opponent in years.

“There’s a recognition from the NRA that this is a more real threat than other gun-control movements,” said Scott Melzer, author of a 2009 book called “Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.”

He cited a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that showed a plurality of Americans had a negative opinion of the NRA for the first time in nearly two decades.

“They’ve mostly only had to message to their base because that’s all they need to do,” Melzer said. “But now there’s something else going on here and they recognize this as more potentially ominous.”

“The NRA is on the run,” said Alan Jenkins, a former civil rights lawyer with the Department of Justice.

Noir and the NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

The interview with Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render and who represents one half of the rap group “Run The Jewels,” appeared on NRA TV, the organization’s main media arm. The channel is loaded with video clips from conservatives pundits of all stripes, with some messages that border on apocalyptic to more sunny episodes about shopping for outfits that work with a firearm.

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Trending videos over the past week include a segment called “Do Black Lives Matter to Anti-Gun Activists?,” “Colion Noir responds to David Hogg’s White Privilege,” and another that details the gun-toting history of a civil rights activist. Dana Loesch, the NRA’s main spokeswoman, told a conservative audience recently that “there are thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend, and you don’t see town halls for them.” The video with Noir and Killer Mike has also been viewed more than 120,000 times on YouTube.

“NRA, please please please double down on content like this. This is the stuff that changes minds,” one commenter said.

The strategy of race-based attacks has left liberal organizations and gun-control advocates fuming, especially because Saturday’s march went to great lengths to include prominent minority voices from different racial backgrounds.

The opposition has been so fierce that Killer Mike has already apologized for his appearance on NRA TV. In a two-part video posted the same day the NRA video was released, the rapper said he now realizes the NRA used his words as a “weapon” against the March For Our Lives.

“I’m sorry that an interview I did about a minority, black people in this country, and gun rights was used as a weapon against you guys,” he said. “That was unfair to you and it was wrong, and it disparaged some very noble work you’re doing.”

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Critics were unsympathetic, and said the rapper should have known the organization would seek to use his words for its own purposes.

A primary strategy of the NRA, they said, is to deflect attention from the proliferation of guns in America and the epidemic of mass shootings. Generating racial resentment and fear of criminals fits that playbook, they said.

“The NRA has long employed old and familiar blame-shifting tactics that are highly racialized in order to turn attention away from the gun-control debate,” said Kristen Clarke, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Whether stigmatizing black single mothers, or pandering to communities of color through figures such as Killer Mike, or promoting more cops inside schools as the solution to school shootings, the NRA has long used dog whistles to drive its agenda.”

Black supporters of President Trump disagreed. They said the liberal anger was another sign of the supposed political correctness problem among liberals, who they view as being intolerant of differing views.

“It’s so sad that Rapper Killer Mike can’t have an opinion,” tweeted Diamond and Silk, who were paid supporters of the Trump campaign. Their real names are Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson.

The new strategy represents another twist in the NRA’s complicated history on race and political activism, according to Melzer and others who have studied the NRA for years. Founded in 1871, its political activism and close alignment with conservative politics emerged strongly in the 1990s, when current president Wayne LaPierre ascended to power and experts said the organization sought to remake itself from a single-issue Second Amendment group to something greater: a one-stop shop of conservative cultural zealotry. LaPierre’s NRA now stands against more than gun-control rights, calling itself “liberty’s safest place” against “thugs” and “liberals.”

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Just last year, an NRA spokesperson on NRA TV said that there was no “genuine black oppression as there was in the past” and that President Obama “set race relations back 100 years in this country.”

NRA TV today features programming for nearly every demographic, including Noir’s show, videos from more traditional conservative firebrands, and a Real Housewives-style program called “Love at First Shot.” Noir, who was hired after years of running a successful YouTube series about gun enthusiasts, regularly attracts more than 100,000 viewers per episode.

His programs often accuse others — not the NRA — of being the true arbiters of racial bias in America.

“If our politicians are truly using the carnage that they refuse to stop to attack the rights of honest, hard-working Americans caught in living hell, then they are guilty of the most despicable form of racism imaginable,” Noir said in another video posted Monday.

Whether or not this message resonates with black communities is hard to ascertain. Recent polling released by Quinnipiac University said black Americans are more likely than their white or Hispanic counterparts to support gun control, and polls show that whites make up the majority of those opposed to stricter gun regulations.

Multiple black gun ownership groups did not return repeated requests for comment, and survey data show the NRA’s membership remains overwhelmingly white — though specific numbers are unavailable. Black gun ownership has risen in the Trump era, but the NRA still received widespread condemnation for remaining silent after the death of Philando Castile, a licensed black gun owner who died in a police shooting in Minnesota during 2016.

Because of this, some question whether the NRA’s recent overtures to black communities are even targeted at black people. Jenkins, the former DOJ lawyer and the current president of a social justice organization called The Opportunity Agenda, said the NRA is merely using black people as a prop to speak to their white base.

“Attempting to divide black people is not the same as an overture to black people,” Jenkins said. “It’s just corrosive and cynical.”


Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com.