HOLDEN, Maine — The president of the National Rifle Association showed up in Brewer on Thursday to stump for a Senate candidate and warn attendees that the upcoming election is the most important one of their lives.
During a private conversation after the campaign event hosted by U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers, however, NRA chief David Keene said he was pleased with what he sees as a change in the national culture when it comes to gun rights.
“Most people think that the American culture in many ways is going the wrong way,” Keene said. “On guns, the culture has changed so that today, guns are cool. Women are joining the shooting sports. Hunting is up. Ranges are opening up all over the place. High school shooting teams that were abolished in the 70s are coming back. And [the NRA supports] a lot of that stuff.”
Keene said the changing attitude toward guns — that “cool” factor — became evident to him about a month ago after he sat down with about 40 legislators and their aides.
After that event, a young female intern approached him and told him that she agreed with his message of a changing gun culture.
“She said, ‘At my college, every Friday night all of my sorority sisters go to the range [to shoot],’” Keene said. “I said, ‘You know, 45 years ago if I had called up a sorority girl and said, hey, what do you say we go out and shoot a little bit, I wouldn’t have gotten that date.’”
While the culture may be changing a bit, Keene took a hard NRA line when it came to compromise, a word that is not typically considered part of the group’s arsenal.
“We work very closely with people in both parties. We work with legislatures at the state and national level,” Keene said. “We will not compromise on principle. We will not appease our critics in the hope that if we give them a little bit, they won’t ask for more.”
Keene drew special attention to what he sees as a lack of understanding of firearms by some, including President Barack Obama.
“The president, in his town hall debate this week, did what liberals have been doing for years,” Keene said. “If you listened to him, he said, ‘What we need to do is we need to ban automatic military weapons.’”
Keene said that comment illustrates why the NRA must be vigilant in protecting Second Amendment gun rights.
“[Those guns] have been banned to the public since 1934. [Obama was] talking about sporting versions, semi-automatic versions, of weapons,” Keene said.
And while that might not seem like much of a distinction to some, to Keene it made all the difference in the world. Pointing at a rifle on the wall of Maine Military Supply in Brewer, he singled out one such weapon that is on the president’s list.
“The AR-15, which you see on the wall, is the biggest-selling sporting weapon in the United States today,” Keene said.
Nearby, “blood-filled” zombie targets lined another shelf, apparently a popular choice among those looking for a new way to spice up their shooting sports, whether with an AR-15 or other weapon.
Keene said his group doesn’t want guns in hands that shouldn’t have them, and pointed at the existence of the National Instant Background Check System as one of the NRA’s big victories.
Prospective gun buyers fill out NICS forms at gun shops and the sellers receive speedy permission — or denial — on a pending sale. Keene estimated that 95 percent of the nation’s gun shows also use NICS tests to make sure that guns don’t end up in the wrong hands. But he’s not sure that is even necessary.
“There’s no empirical evidence that criminals buy guns at gun shows,” Keene said. “Criminals buy guns on the streets.”
With that said, Keene backed away from pushing for stricter guidelines for “private sales” from a gun-owner to a friend, co-worker, or person answering a newspaper or magazine advertisement.
“Private sales are exempt [from NICS requirements] just as the private sale of a car doesn’t require a dealer’s license,” Keene said. “We do not support extending the government’s heavy hand into those kinds of sales.”