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National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre testifies on Capitol Hill last month. During his 22-year tenure, LaPierre’s dystopian justification for gun ownership has evolved.

LaPierre’s shifting target

Anarchy supplants tyranny as NRA head’s chief concern

– Wayne LaPierre understands the power of dystopia. For the National Rifle Association’s CEO, that dystopia – or more specifically, the fear that it conjures – is the stuff that grows membership, funding and influence.

And for much of his 22-year tenure leading the NRA, he has conjured those fears with the help of a familiar enemy: the U.S. government.

The NRA has long argued that American citizens need to be armed to fend off some future American dictatorship that would one day “come for the guns.” Charlton Heston wasn’t subtle in his “cold dead hands” pledge in 2000. In 1995, LaPierre called federal employees “jack-booted government thugs” and claimed that they were “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black stormtrooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.” Or, if it wasn’t Uncle Sam knocking down doors, it would be some other totalitarian government.

While most of us saw “Red Dawn” as a cheap action flick, LaPierre saw a possible future, saying there “was nothing unrealistic in that dramatization” of Cubans seizing our guns. “It can happen here,” he warned.

But that is yesterday’s dystopia. In a sense, LaPierre’s argument fell victim to the NRA’s own success. It’s hard to argue that the federal government is coming to seize your guns when that same government is working overtime to enshrine the power of the Second Amendment. During the Bush administration, Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for an expanded interpretation of the Second Amendment, and the White House helped push through special protections for the gun industry. As George W. Bush’s administration furthered an ardent pro-gun agenda in sync with the NRA’s position, LaPierre had to find a new strategy.

So today, LaPierre isn’t spending so much time warning of an overweening, tyrannical federal government; he is more interested in social collapse. The shift can be traced to late 2005, specifically the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the 1990s, LaPierre had noted the role “armed citizens played in stabilizing a community against the crime and looting that followed in the wake of Hurricane Andrew that same year.” But it was subtheme, never a drumbeat. After all, with President Clinton pushing for monumental gun violence laws, including the Assault Weapons Ban and the Brady Bill, LaPierre’s specter of federal government had some purchase.

After Katrina, the “fear of social collapse” argument moved to center stage. A pamphlet invoked Katrina to warn that you can be “reduced to the final and purest form of self-reliance in the face of terrifying anarchy.” The dystopia LaPierre has been peddling since then is less an all-powerful U.S. government than a government that is helpless to protect you.

LaPierre’s pivot was on full display in an article he recently wrote for the Daily Caller. After describing the “hellish world” left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, he goes on to catalog his fears: “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone Criminals. These are perils we are sure to face – not just maybe.” But the full conversion comes five paragraphs later, when he writes: “Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there – or simply doesn’t show up in time.” Forget totalitarianism. Now we need to fear total anarchy.

Sam Kleiner is a student at Yale Law School. He wrote this for Slate.