In the days after a mass shooting, the National Rifle Association usually stays completely silent, its social media accounts on lockdown.
Even in less fraught times, the US’s leading pro-gun lobby group usually refuses to participate in most news coverage of the firearms debate, choosing instead to attack the media from a distance.
But as students who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida last week continue to speak out publicly against the NRA’s “blood money,” the gun-rights group has announced that it will send spokeswoman Dana Loesch to participate in Wednesday’s CNN town hall conversation with Parkland shooting survivors.
The move comes as the NRA appears to be attempting to dial down attention to the speech that longtime leader Wayne LaPierre is scheduled to give at CPAC later this week. Instead it is putting Loesch in the spotlight.
A longtime conservative talk radio host, Loesch sparked outrage last year for an NRA recruitment ad in which she railed against the left for using “their media to assassinate real news” and said NRA members needed to confront “this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth”.
The ad sparked a broad backlash, with one critic calling it “a whisper shy of a call for full civil war”.
“This NRA ad is an open call to violence to protect white supremacy,” Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson wrote in response. “If I made a video like this, I’d be in jail.”
Shannon Watts, a leading gun control activist, criticized CNN’s choice to include Loesch in Wednesday’s discussion.
“The Parkland students are recovering from trauma and have only been studying gun policy for a week,” she wrote on Twitter. “Is it really necessary for CNN to pit them against a vicious, dishonest and radicalized NRA lobbyist?”
She added: “This is like inviting tobacco lobbyists to explain to kids who have lost loved ones to lung cancer how we can prevent smoking deaths. Lobbyists don’t deserve a seat at this table.”
Once an influential mommy blogger, Loesch was already a prominent gun rights advocate when she joined the NRA in early 2017 as a special assistant to NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. The cover of her popular 2014 book, Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America, shows her holding a rifle while wearing extremely tall heels. The book attacks arguments for gun control. “People need to learn what existing laws we have regulating an issue before proposing new, already existing laws,” Loesch tweeted on Tuesday.
Since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, many of America’s most prominent gun control activists have been women, and they have argued for gun control using the the rhetoric of motherhood and safety. The NRA, which has made steps to attract a more diverse membership, is still overwhelmingly old, white, and male, as are its most prominent leaders. As women have organized against the NRA and gun rights advocates, Loesch has been a prominent female defender of gun rights, explaining how her support for gun ownership fits into her roles as mother and citizen. Even before she joined the NRA, Loesch frequently feuded on Twitter with Watts, a former public relations executive from Indiana who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, now part of the country’s largest gun control group. Loesch has also attacked the organizers of the Women’s March.
Loesch has highlighted the abuse and insults she receives on Twitter for defending her gun rights views. Last October, she wrote that she and her family had been forced to move “due to repeated threats from gun control advocates”.
“One guy hunted down my private cell phone number, called when police were here, threatened to shoot me in my front yard,” she wrote. “Another guy created a string of social media accounts, posted photos of my house, threatened to rape me to death.” She tagged the posts #MeToo.
Loesch’s role at the NRA has reflected the organization’s position as right wing culture warriors, ready to fight against the left and for Donald Trump on a far broader range of issues than simple gun policy. She has made multiple attack ads criticizing the New York Times, calling the newspaper an “old gray hag” and almost setting a copy of the paper on fire on camera. The Times recently profiled her as the NRA’s “telegenic warrior.”
But Loesch herself was not initially a Trump supporter, writing a post on her website in early 2016 about why she did not trust Trump’s transformation on Second Amendment issues, and listing a long set of concerns about his business associates and business dealings. She endorsed Ted Cruz in January 2016. In contrast, the NRA as an organization, which spent at least $30m to put Trump in the White House, was an early and loyal supporter of the president. LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president and CEO, was treated as Trump’s left-hand man after the president assumed office.
At times, Loesch’s tweets have not represented the NRA’s official position – including once when she criticized newly-appointed White House spokesman Anthony Scaramucci’s past anti-gun and pro-gun control tweets.
A Tea Party conservative, she built a career as an influential writer and commentator, working for Andrew Breitbart and hosting her own radio show. Her book Flyover Nation: You Can’t Run a County You’ve Never Been To, describes an America split between “Coastals” and “Flyovers”.
“Coastals think they understand firearms because they watched a TV movie about Columbine,” as her book jacket puts it. “Flyovers get a deer rifle for their thirteenth birthday.”