Any remaining doubt about where the gun lobby may be headed after the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting seems over now. NRA leaders have endorsed America’s most profitable gunmaking CEO, whose best-selling product is the same AR-15 rifle used by Adam Lanza inside the Sandy Hook school, to join the NRA’s governing board.
At the same time, NRA leaders are reaching beyond even Republicans to embrace Glenn Beck, who is now a self-described anti-GOP-establishment conservative.
This year, George Kollitides II, the chief executive officer of Freedom Group, America’s largest and most profitable consortium of gun manufacturing companies, has been selected as a candidate for the NRA board.
“He was put on by the Nominating Committee,” said Richard Pearson, one of the members of the NRA’s 2013 Nominating Committee who is not an NRA director, in a brief telephone interview with MSNBC from his office at the Illinois State Rifle Association. “We looked at the qualifications, and he was there.”
Kollitides has run for the NRA board himself in years past and lost, with some gun rights activists complaining that he is too close to the financial industry. But this year he may have a better chance. NRA activists may be more likely to vote him into the board now that military-style, AR-15 semi-automatic rifles of the sort made by his consortium are at the heart of a proposed federal assault weapons ban.
A Bushmaster AR-15 rifle made by one of the firms owned by Freedom Group was used in this winter’s grade school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But only in recent years did Freedom Group begin to acquire different arms firms, including the 197-year-old Remington Arms, and the 30-year-old Bushmaster Firearms International, which manufacture AR-15 rifles.
By 2011, The New York Times described the Madison, North Carolina-based Freedom Group as “the most powerful and mysterious force in the American commercial gun industry today.” Its success has been driven by sales of “modern sporting rifles,” like AR-15s, at a faster pace “than the general firearms industry,” according to the firm’s latest available report. Freedom Group’s profits have risen from nearly $80 million five years go to an average of almost $250 million a year since 2009.
The gun lobby is embracing Freedom Group and Glenn Beck at the same time. These days few other figures seem to move NRA audiences like the former Fox News commentator, and every year NRA conventions are looking less like mainstream conservative events. This year it may be telling that the gun lobby, which has long prided itself on being able to draw many top conservative speakers, slated just Beck to give the keynote address. It will be the second year in a row that Beck has delivered the keynote.
Past keynote speakers have included Vice President Dick Cheney, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (months before he resigned over campaign money laundering charges for which he was later convicted; he is now free pending an appeal), ret. U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, who commanded U.S. troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and John Bolton, the Bush administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who, for a time, also joined the NRA board.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech in 2010 in Charlotte, where she first coined the phrase: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” LaPierre later used the phrase in comments following the Newtown tragedy.
In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the NRA meeting in St. Louis. But it was Beck who gave the NRA keynote speech the same year. He gave his first keynote address at the NRA convention in Louisville in 2008, the same year he also paid $1,000 to become an NRA Life Member. At the time, Beck was a talk radio host who also hosted his own program on CNN’s Headline News channel.
Beck became a household name over the next several years hosting his own prime time Fox News show, before his conspiracy theories—including what some observers like the Anti-Defamation League derided as anti-Semitic remarks—helped lead the network to finally let him go. More recently, Beck has returned to being a talk radio host, now critical of not only liberals but also most mainstream Republicans.
“The Republicans have betrayed their own values for so long,” Beck said last month in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. “They have worked against the Tea Party and the people who understand the constitution and who want to live by the constitution.” Beck also now runs TheBlaze.com website along with a mainly Internet-based TV station, covering many issues including gun rights.
“He’s a conservative force of nature and our good friend,” LaPierre told the NRA banquet audience last April when he introduced Beck in St. Louis.
This May, Beck will speak in Houston at the NRA banquet with two corporate sponsors: MidwayUSA, a Columbia, Missouri-based ammunition and gun accessories firm that has long been one of the NRA’s biggest donors; and Remington Arms, owned by Freedom Group.
At the same convention, NRA attendees will learn which candidates, including Freedom Group CEO Kollitides on this year’s NRA ballot, have been elected to the NRA board.