A rack of shotguns on display at the 2024 NRA Annual Meeting
A rack of shotguns on display at the 2024 NRA Annual Meeting / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: Hunter Biden Verdict Divides Gun Activists [Member Exclusive]

What do you get when the son of the most gun-control-focused President in a generation is convicted of violating federal gun control laws? Among many advocates in the gun space, the answer is a whole lot of discomfort in determining whether and how to respond.

A Delaware jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict Tuesday morning against Hunter Biden. It convicted him of lying to a federally licensed gun dealer, making a false claim on a federal background check form by saying he was not an unlawful drug user, and illegally possessing a firearm as a user of a controlled substance.

It’s an outcome almost tailor-made to scramble the politics of our current moment.

Hunter Biden’s Second Amendment defense, which relies on an avenue created by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, should be at least somewhat popular among the pro-gun. However, as Americans have become increasingly polarized along partisan lines, Republicans and conservatives have become the de facto coalition championing gun rights. His status as Joe Biden’s son automatically tempers support for anything he does among those on the other side of the aisle from his father.

Additionally, Hunter Biden has become a bête noire among the same group in recent years. His infamous laptop and its contents, which included pictures of him engaged in illicit activity and emails about his overseas business dealings, were briefly suppressed by social media platforms and news outlets before the 2020 election, leading many Republicans to cry foul. Many also believe President Biden improperly benefitted from Hunter’s overseas activities, spurring House Republicans to launch an unsuccessful impeachment inquiry earlier this year.

On the other side of the coin, Hunter’s father is the most powerful Democratic politician in the country and has become a hero of the American gun control movement. He has delivered more gun-control action than any other President in decades. So, those who support strict gun laws and might otherwise cheer a conviction in Hunter’s case are predisposed to keep quiet out of deference to his father.

This political tension was inherent in the gun groups that did (and did not) choose to comment on a high-profile application of America’s gun laws.

Gun-Control Groups

Perhaps most notably, none of the country’s major gun-control groups has publicly said a word about Hunter Biden’s conviction.

The subject did not come up at Everytown For Gun Safety’s “Gun Sense University” event just hours after the verdict. That’s despite the fact that President Biden headlined the event and touted his administration’s work on keeping guns out of the hands of prohibited possessors, among other things.

Neither EverytownGiffords, nor Brady has issued a public press release about the verdict, and each appears to be avoiding requests for on-the-record comments by news outlets. One gun-control group staffer told Politico on the condition of anonymity that the continued silence of gun-control advocacy groups is “all about politics.”

“This is just: ‘No, we’re not going to get in the middle of this shitstorm. Nothing good can come of it,'” they said.

Gun-Rights Groups

On the gun-rights side, most of the major players did chime in. However, their responses varied significantly, with some praising the verdict and others forcefully criticizing it and the law upon which it was based.

The larger, more established gun rights organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) fell into the former camp.

“NSSF has been a consistent supporter of keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not possess them, whether that be a prohibited individual, an unsupervised child or someone suffering a mental health crisis,” Mark Oliva, NSSF spokesman, told the Washington Examiner. “Hunter Biden’s admission that he was illegally using controlled substances and addicted to illicit drugs at the time of his firearm purchase clearly demonstrates that he was a prohibited individual at the time he purchased the firearm and lied on the ATF Form 4473 and attested he was not using illicit drugs.”

“The National Rifle Association has always stood for the lawful use and possession of firearms,” Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, told the Examiner. “Mr. Biden’s documented lifestyle choices at the time of purchasing a firearm made him a prohibited person under current law.”

In the latter camp, groups like the Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) and Gun Owners of America (GOA) used the occasion to blast the federal gun ban for drug users. FPC, in particular, took a forceful stand against the law and reiterated its previous offer to assist Hunter Biden’s legal team in fighting his case on appeal to have the law struck down.

“Countless lives are destroyed every year under the federal government’s unconstitutional and immoral regulations. We proudly work to eliminate these laws and create a free world,” Brandon Combs, FPC President, said in a press release. “Just as we have in many other cases, we stand ready to assist Mr. Biden in his challenge of federal gun laws.”

“Hunter Biden found GUILTY on three counts of violating unconstitutionally broad gun laws that shouldn’t even exist,” GOA announced from its official X account.

What It Means

Gun-control groups hesitating to opine on the verdict is not much of a surprise.

Despite their apparent commitment to seeing gun restrictions enforced, the major gun-control groups are no doubt sensitive to the political valence of this particular case. They know that getting their agenda passed and preserving their influence means staying in the good graces of influential Democrats. So, they likely don’t want to make the felony conviction of the President’s son an occasion to celebrate the virtues of the Gun Control Act as they might in other circumstances.

The more interesting dynamic is the divided approach taken by gun-rights groups. Here, too, the political valence of the case clearly matters, but in a different way. It speaks to a growing split between the larger, more traditionally conservative organizations and the scrappier, more libertarian-leaning Second Amendment organizations in how they respond to high-profile incidents where guns interact with other right-coded shibboleths.

For instance, a similar dynamic has also been apparent in other contexts, particularly controversial police killings of lawful gun owners. While groups like the NRA and NSSF have traditionally avoided speaking out in such cases and often tout their partnerships with law enforcement organizations, groups like FPC routinely offer fiery condemnations of law enforcement actions perceived as violating the civil liberties of gun owners.

The Hunter Biden saga appears to be another expression of the same dynamic. Protecting the rights of drug users to access firearms has not traditionally been a policy priority for the NRA, but groups like FPC and GOA have track records of filing legal briefs arguing that very point in prior cases.

It’s another manifestation of the growing difference between the “we don’t need new gun laws, just enforce the ones on the books” attitude of older-style gun-rights advocacy and the “shall not be infringed means dismantling the entire current gun-control apparatus” of a more recent breed of online activists.

It will be worth watching how it continues to play out through Hunter Biden’s appeals process and the litany of separate challenges across the country calling into question longstanding prohibited persons prohibitions under Bruen.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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