Gunning for Wayne LaPierre? Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images
Gunning for Wayne LaPierre? Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

Like the Republican Party, the National Rifle Association has been moving right for more than three decades -- ever since radicals calling for maximum gun rights took over the organization's convention in Cincinnati in 1977. And like Republican leaders who keep caving to the demands of Tea Party extremists at virtually every turn, the NRA's national leadership has a big fat Tea Party problem that it cannot solve.

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre has proved willing to shout like a man on fire to stake his claim to gun-rights radicalism. But like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell -- and some of McConnell's former colleagues knocked out of their seats by Tea Party challengers -- there is always someone to LaPierre's right.

That's the context in which to understand the NRA's ignominious retreat from the criticism it leveled last week against open-carry activists in Texas. After calling their behavior "weird" and making it clear the NRA considered it detrimental to the gun-rights cause (on the not unreasonable assumption that scaring everyone you meet is not a good way to win friends), NRA lobbyist Chris Cox surrendered to the people who make LaPierre look sane:

Cox went on to emphasize what he said was his organization's official policy: "The National Rifle Association unapologetically and unflinchingly supports the right of self-defense and what that means is that our members and our supporters have a right to carry a firearm in any place they have a legal right to be. If that means open carry, we support open carry."

Cox attributed the criticism, which had appeared on the NRA's website, unsigned, to an errant staffer. Not likely. Instead, the NRA feared adding Texas open carry advocates to the ranks of Gun Owners of America and other radical groups eager to paint LaPierre & Co. as GINOs -- Gunners in Name Only.

The gun-rights part of American conservatism has simply imitated the dynamics of the larger movement -- going right, then extreme, now extremer. If I were LaPierre, I wouldn't hold any conventions in Cincinnati.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.