NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, a white Colonial-style building stands about 50 feet back from the road, an unassuming presence in a town that never got much attention until now. On a recent day, a security guard got out of a parked car at the end of the driveway and said he’d received instructions to turn away anyone who didn’t work in the building. It wasn't hard to see why his employers might have hired him. In what appears to be a bizarre coincidence, the people working inside were among the country's most adamant champions of the kinds of weapons and ammunition that Adam Lanza used to kill 26 children and adults just down the road last week.
The Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, is the nation's premier gun manufacturers trade association, and in recent years the group has concentrated on marketing military-style assault weapons of the kind used by Lanza, James Holmes and other mass murderers. In the last decade, as the national interest in hunting has declined, gun manufacturers have increasingly relied on the sale of high-powered rifles, capable of killing many people in seconds. Behind the scenes, the NSSF has done much of the work of pitching those products to politicians, the media and gun buyers.
Doug Painter, a former NSSF president, delivered a pitch characteristic of the NSSF’s folksy approach in a video released by the group in 2009, a year when many gun-owners were worried that the newly Democratic White House would try to take away their weapons.
Holding up the same kind of rifle that Adam Lanza would eventually use to commit mass murder, Painter asked the camera, “Am I gonna trade in Ol’ Betsy for one of these?” He answered himself, “Maybe not. But there’s a more important point to consider. Anti-gun folks insist on labeling these rifles as ‘bad guns,’ as opposed to more traditional-looking ‘good guns.’ How can any inanimate object be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’?”
The ad was part of a broad, multi-year effort by the gun industry-backed NSSF "to put a happy face on these military weapons,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the gun-control advocacy group the Violence Policy Center. "People would be shocked if they knew that the industry has taken guns that were designed for warfare and marketed them to civilians," said Sugarmann, who happens to be a native of Newtown, Conn.
* * * * *
Since the Sandy Hook massacre, the NSSF has stated publicly that it will not respond to media requests, and attempts to reach Steve Sanetti, the president, were unsuccessful. Nor did anyone answer at two publicly listed numbers for Painter, the former president. In a statement posted on its website, the group acknowledged the NSSF's proximity to the school, saying, “there are not many degrees of separation in small communities like Newtown, and so, not surprisingly, we had family, friends and acquaintances that were affected.”
The group later added another statement, claiming that it would “welcome the opportunity” to eventually become part of a “full national conversation” aimed at improving the “protection of our children and our communities.”
As that conversation unfolds, Sanetti, the group’s president since 2008, is likely to emerge as a controversial figure. A former Army captain, Sanetti previously served as president of Sturm & Ruger, a Connecticut-based company that produced the assault weapon used in the Norway massacre of 2011. He helped direct "the successful coordinated response to municipal lawsuits that threatened the firearms industry in the late 1990s,” according to a 2008 press release from the firm.
"I think the world of him," said Russ Thurman, a gun magazine editor and a member of NSSF's board of governors, who has noted in the past that while Sanetti's "long-term involvement in the legal issues has not been pleasant or glamorous," it is "important.”
The NSSF’s efforts to rebrand military-style semi-automatic rifles, or “AR-15 rifles” in industry speak, as consumer-friendly recreational products can be traced back to 2009, when the group launched a national media campaign designed to convince hunters of the benefits of the newer, more expensive assault weapons.
In a newsletter released at the time, Sanetti emphasized how important the guns were to the industry’s bottom line. "The best-selling rifles in America today are those based on the AR-15 platform," he said.
In 2010, the group began working to promote the AR-15 with Guns and Ammo, a major gun magazine that devoted a recent cover story to the best guns for surviving a zombie apocalypse. The group also held combination seminars and shooting sessions where members of the media were lectured on the differences between machine guns and semi-automatic rifles (machines guns are even more dangerous). And yet the group has rarely, if ever, attempted to advance the argument that these weapons are necessary, or even particularly useful. "Why are these guns so popular?" asks a lecturer in a video of one of the NSSF media seminars. "One word: They're fun!"
"These are fun fun guns to shoot," says an unidentified journalist in the same video. "As a mother of three I'd have no problem letting my kids, with the correct supervision and safety gear, you know, try one of these guns."
In order for gun manufacturers to keep growing, Sugarmann said, "they've got to do two things. First, find new markets, which is what they're doing with their womens' and childrens' programs. The other option is to find something new to sell the guys who already have guns. The answer for that is increasingly militarized weapons."
* * * * *
Statistically, it's difficult to discern how well these efforts are working. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has a long history of suppressing statistical reports on both gun registrations and gun violence, while simultaneously painting a rosy picture of industry growth.
What's clear is that the gun industry's growing dependence on AR-15s has made it more vulnerable to any legislation that might limit the sale of ARs or high-capacity magazines. And so in April of 2010, the NSSF launched its first-ever political action committee, called NSSFPAC.
In its first nine months, the PAC raised $10,000. In the next election cycle, in 2012, it raised ten times that, $102,000. NSSF also spent $500,000 in the first ten months of 2012 on lobbyists, a nearly five-fold increase over the 2008 total.
The increased presence on Capitol Hill appears to have paid dividends. In its 2011 report, the NSSF boasted that its annual members' lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. had an "immediate result," the introduction of legislation in both the House and Senate to exempt lead bullets from regulations of toxic substances. And indeed, on April 14, less than a week after the NSSF visited Congress, one member in each house, Montana's Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Florida's Rep. Jeff Miller (R), introduced the legislation.
Asked about the timing of the bill, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tester disputed the NSSF's characterization. Tester, she said, consults his own constituents on Second Amendment issues, and "was getting ready to introduce the bill long before NSSF's fly-in." Miller's office did not respond to questions from HuffPost about the bill.
The group has also helped lead a successful lobbying effort in Connecticut, working with the NRA and other organizations to help defeat a proposed ban on high-capacity ammunition clips -- magazines containing more than 10 bullets. Jake McGuigan, the NSSF's government-relations director, told lawmakers that the bill would take a heavy toll on the state’s $1.3 billion firearms industry.
Adding to the irony of NSSF's proximity to Sandy Hook Elementary, the weapons industry's history in Connecticut stretches back almost to the very founding of the country, earning the state a proud nickname: "the arsenal of democracy."
Eli Whitney began manufacturing pistols in Connecticut in 1797, and Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt 45 and one of the architects of the industrial revolution, was born in Hartford and started producing guns there in 1848. The Connecticut River, which stretches from northern New Hampshire to the Long Island Sound, made Connecticut an ideal setting for industry. For more than two centuries, the fate of the state's industrial plants, gun businesses and military bases have been closely intertwined. As NSSF and many other proponents of the latest and most dangerous weapons models are quick to point out, gun makers in America have long looked to the military for inspiration and funding; the Colt 45 was initially designed for soldiers, and the Civil War financed the construction of many stately homes along the Connecticut River.
Last year, Marlin Firearms, a well-regarded manufacturer that had been in business in Connecticut for a century, closed its plant, costing the state hundreds of jobs. Following the Newtown shooting, the NSSF is facing what may be a far more formidable challenge. Legislation to ban assault weapons has gained momentum in Congress, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has vowed to reintroduce the expired 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban on the Senate's first day back in 2013.
One recent evening outside Sandy Hook Elementary School, a local man who'd come by to pay his respects said he owned a semi-automatic rifle and some 30-round magazines -- the same kind of ammunition that Lanza used and that the NSSF promoted.
He said he'd never heard of the NSSF, but he agreed with their message: powerful, military-style guns are fun.
"But big deal," he added. "I wouldn't mind if they banned them at all."
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the Connecticut River as starting in Springfield, Mass.