Following Mass Shootings, Two Documentaries Offer Context on America’s Gun Debate and the NRA’s Role

A still from the 2020 documentary "NRA Under Fire." Along with 2015's "Gunned Down," the film offers background on the NRA's role in America's ongoing debate over gun rights and gun control.

A still from the 2020 documentary "NRA Under Fire." Along with 2015's "Gunned Down," the film offers background on the NRA's role in America's ongoing debate over gun rights and gun control.

March 23, 2021

In the wake of the March 16 Atlanta-area shooting deaths of eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, followed by the March 22 shooting deaths of ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket, attention has once again turned to the debate over gun rights and gun regulation in America.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss gun violence, including proposed bills that would tighten background checks for gun owners. The hearings are being led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Inaction has made this horror completely predictable,” Blumenthal said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said, “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders.”

In remarks Tuesday, President Biden called on Congress to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, saying: “as president I’m going to use all the resources at my disposal to keep people safe.”

One week before the Boulder shooting, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action had publicized its recent legal victory in which a judge struck down Boulder’s ban on assault-style weapons and ten-round magazines.

Around 8 p.m. Eastern on March 22, as news of the Boulder shooting was unfolding, the NRA quoted the Second Amendment on Twitter: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

In response to a request from FRONTLINE, the NRA provided the following statement: “The men and women of the NRA are saddened by this tragic and senseless crime. It is our longstanding rule to wait for all the facts to be known before making any policy statements. Regrettably, gun control advocates have already rushed to politicize this horrific situation — even as most of the salient facts remain unknown. We would like to express our gratitude to law enforcement, first responders, and local officials for their courageous efforts. We support their pursuit of the facts involved.”

For years, FRONTLINE has been chronicling the evolution of America’s dialogue on guns and the actions of one of its key participants, the NRA.

The 2020 documentary NRA Under Fire investigated how the NRA, which has mobilized its base around fear that their guns would be taken away, came to be challenged by a group of students just as passionate about a cause of their own. After a 2018 gun massacre killed 14 of their classmates, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, embarked on a sustained gun-control campaign that helped motivate a groundswell of politicians to take on the NRA.

The documentary traced how the Parkland students’ movement helped usher in a new era, in which the NRA, long a powerful lobby, has come under threat from all sides. Further difficulties mounted as leaked internal documents revealed lavish spending by one of the NRA’s top leaders, Wayne LaPierre, and sparked allegations of financial misconduct. The NRA filed for bankruptcy in January of this year.

The film also touched on an investigation of the group by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, one of the pro-gun-control candidates elected following the Parkland students’ organizing. At the time the film was released, James had issued nearly 100 subpoenas to current and former employees of the NRA.

Last August, she moved to “dissolve” the National Rifle Association, filing a lawsuit alleging that the tax-exempt organization’s leaders had “looted” millions of dollars from its charitable mission for their own gain. The NRA decried the lawsuit as “a baseless, premeditated attack on our organization and the Second Amendment freedoms it fights to defend.” LaPierre, one of four individuals charged in the New York state lawsuit, along with the NRA, has denied any wrongdoing.

NRA Under Fire built on reporting from the 2015 documentary Gunned Down. In the earlier film, FRONTLINE examined how the NRA had wielded its political power to dominate America’s conversation about gun rights and gun control, outlasting and overpowering the calls for change that followed mass shooting after mass shooting, from Columbine to Newtown.

“It really has nothing to do with guns; it has to do with freedom,” former NRA spokesman John Aquilino said in the documentary of the organization’s appeal. “Do you give your freedom to the government or do you keep it within yourself, within your community, within your family?”

The documentary tracked how the NRA reinvented itself, from a group of gun enthusiasts and sportsmen with minimal engagement in politics to a powerful lobbying force that opposed any perceived infringement of the constitutional right to bear arms. Gunned Down also looked at how LaPierre has activated the group’s influential base in the wake of mass shootings and how President Barack Obama tasked then-Vice President Joe Biden with leading the charge on a national effort at gun control that ultimately failed in the Senate.

“The NRA wins because it’s patient and because long after America’s dismay about these gun massacres has faded, the NRA and its membership are still thinking about guns,” Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone told FRONTLINE in the film.

As the debate over gun control legislation again heats up, revisit both FRONTLINE documentaries for context, streamable in full below.

Gabrielle Schonder contributed to this story. 

NRA Under Fire (2020)

Gunned Down (2015)

This story has been updated to include the NRA statement. 

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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