In the aftermath of Saturday’s mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump has been widely criticized for spreading hateful anti-immigrant hysteria. The blame is well earned, but Trump is not alone. For years, the National Rifle Association has pushed the false narrative that law-abiding Americans are in danger from an invasion of violent foreigners crossing into the country from Mexico. The only way to protect yourself and your family, the gun lobby warns, is to stock up on weapons and take responsibility for your own safety.
For example, in 2010 Arizona passed a law that required state law enforcement officers to engage in racial profiling and ask for the immigration papers of anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally. When the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block the law, arguing it was unconstitutional, the NRA accused the Obama administration of abandoning Arizonans who supposedly lived in fear of violent immigrants.
“While terrorized residents throw their deadbolts, draw their blinds and pray not to have their homes invaded or their kids kidnapped in Arizona, in Washington, D.C., the ruling elite bask in the safety of their 24-hour security and scream with outrage at Arizona’s law — all because they insist upon playing political games with our lives,” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive.
On Saturday, the El Paso shooter reportedly posted an attempted justification for the massacre on 8chan, a hate-filled message board that welcomes racists who have been booted from other platforms. Parts of the document are almost indistinguishable from the NRA’s own racist hysteria. The author portrays himself as a victim of a foreign invasion, left with no choice but to fight back.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the document reads. “They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
Wielding a weapon of war against unarmed civilian back-to-school shoppers, the author reportedly described himself as the one in danger. “My death is likely inevitable,” he wrote. “If I’m not killed by the police, then I’ll probably be gunned down by one of the invaders.”
The El Paso shooter killed 22 people, including a mother who died shielding her 2-month-old from bullets. At least eight of the victims were Mexican nationals.
The bloodshed in El Paso happened in an atmosphere the NRA helped create, as part of its decades-long crusade to frighten white Americans into buying guns and opposing any type of legal restrictions on gun ownership. Once a mostly apolitical group focused on hunting and conservation, the modern-day NRA relies on xenophobic fearmongering as the basis for its legitimacy.
The shift toward fringe right-wing politics dates back to 1977, when gun rights extremists took control of the group and installed as its leader Harlon Carter, a former Border Patrol chief who preached, “No compromise. No gun legislation.” In 1981, reporters discovered that Carter, as a teenager, shot and killed a 15-year-old Mexican boy he suspected of having information about his family’s stolen car. Carter’s murder conviction was eventually overturned on a technicality.
Carter said in a statement that he regretted the incident, but he stopped short of apologizing. At any other organization, such a revelation would likely have been career-ending. But Carter kept his job as the head of the NRA. By that point, his actions as a teenager were mostly in line with the group’s own messaging ― that lawbreaking foreigners were invading the country and Americans needed guns to protect themselves.
That messaging worked. The NRA’s membership soared under Carter’s leadership, The Daily Beast reported. Since then, the group has cultivated a loyal base, portraying itself as the last line of defense against a tyrannical government that’s coming for Americans’ guns. Although the NRA casts itself as a single-issue lobbying group, it has become just as anti-immigrant as it is pro-gun. One cause reinforces the other: The need for guns becomes more imperative if there is someone to fear.
In a leaked 2006 brochure, the NRA fretted: “To criminal aliens, America is a giant supermarket and nobody’s minding the store.” The brochure featured a hyperbolically racist illustration of gang members.
The NRA doubled down on this strategy during the Obama administration, seizing on the racist anxiety of white Americans who feared they were losing power. In 2013, LaPierre wrote an apocalyptic op-ed in The Daily Caller, a conservative outlet that has published white nationalists. LaPierre’s op-ed, titled “Stand and Fight,” was eerily similar to the manifesto reportedly written by the El Paso shooter, as well as those written by the attackers in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, California.
“Latin American drug gangs have invaded every city of significant size in the United States,” LaPierre claimed without evidence. The border, he wrote, “remains porous not only to people seeking jobs in the U.S., but to criminals whose jobs are murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping.”
The following year, the NRA put out a special issue of its magazine devoted entirely to the 2014 midterm elections. “CHAOS AT OUR DOOR? A DANGEROUS WORLD IS CLOSING IN,” the cover read.
LaPierre wrote a column in the magazine, illustrated with a picture of an Islamic State fighter superimposed against an image of a suburban house. The NRA chief executive listed a frenzied grab bag of scary scenarios, which would apparently be less scary with a lot more guns: an electromagnetic pulse attack, suicide bombers, prisoners on the loose, and, of course, “the waves of drug smugglers, kidnappers, sex-slave traffickers and criminals of all kinds who invade our country from the south every day.”
When Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, some pro-gun activists weren’t sure whether to trust him. The Manhattan real estate mogul’s record on guns consisted only of having supported an assault weapons ban in 2000. But LaPierre quickly identified the xenophobic populist as an ally. Trump received the earliest presidential endorsement from the NRA in the group’s history. The NRA spent more than $30 million to help get Trump elected.
“You came through for me, and now I am going to come through for you,” Trump promised at the NRA’s annual convention in 2017, becoming the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to speak at the increasingly fringe event.
During that same convention, Steve Tarani, who claimed to be a former member of Trump’s security detail, delivered a presentation on “active threats” in a small conference room. After listing the NRA’s usual boogeymen — al Qaeda, ISIS, Mexican drug gangs, sanctuary cities — Tarani encouraged his audience to think of it as their own personal duty to confront these threats, as The Nation reported at the time. “It is MY responsibility,” one of Tarani’s PowerPoint slides read.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, the NRA has been a willing partner in his crusade to demonize immigrants. The organization has repeatedly invited Michael Cutler, a contributor to the white nationalist journal Social Contract Press, on its short-lived NRATV to portray immigrants as threats. NRATV correspondent Chuck Holton has pushed white nationalist conspiracy theories, including the idea that Democratic politicians “are trying to import a new populace” into America to replace the current population. Holton has also spread the false claim that Jewish philanthropist George Soros was responsible for a migrant caravan — an idea that appears to have motivated the accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.
Trump has held up his end of the deal. Just this year, he’s used the word “invasion” in more than 2,000 Facebook ads promoting his reelection. As the death count from gun violence continues to rise, Republicans have steadfastly blocked movement on even modest gun legislation. On Monday, Trump suggested strengthening background checks for gun purchases — in exchange for more restrictive immigration laws.