Earlier this year, long before this week’s latest tragic shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, one expert after another predicted the gun lobby’s demise. The horrific massacre of mostly first-grade children in Newtown, Connecticut, seemed to have changed the nation’s views of guns. President Obama and Congressional leaders promised action in Washington. Governors in states from New York to Colorado pledged to pass stricter gun laws in their states, too.
For seven long days after Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the gun lobby said not a word. When the National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre finally did speak on national television, commentators ridiculed him for sounding so “tone deaf” to the still raw emotions of the nation. His proposed solution of solving gun violence by having more guns rang hollow. The gun lobby looked vulnerable for the first time in decades since it emerged on the national stage during the unsteady, often violent times of the late 1970s.
Gun reform groups stepped up after the Newtown tragedy to do something they had never done before: They tried to match the NRA dollar for dollar in electoral campaigns to help gun reform candidates win. National trends seemed to be on their side. Analysts noted that gun ownership has fallen from half of American households back in the 1970s to a third today, and that politicians have won elections even in conservative states despite having defied the NRA. Soon one New Republic author boldly proclaimed, “This is How the NRA Ends.”
Today, however, the NRA seems strong and at no risk of going away nine months after Newtown’s Sandy Hook school shooting. NRA membership is, by any measure, at a record high. Gun sales across the nation are also breaking records. More importantly, this spring in Washington and this summer in Denver, the NRA has shown it still has the clout to influence major legislation in defiance of what opinion polls post suggest voters want, and to punish individual officials who respond to voters’ wishes by defying the NRA and its gun rights agenda.
Underestimating the gun lobby has been the gun reform movement’s biggest mistake. Defeating an organization so deeply rooted across so much of American society will require a different approach. The side that wins this debate will be the one that manages to appeal to more gun owners and countless other Americans who share many of the same fears. It will require taking on the gun lobby where it is most vulnerable: its absolutist, if not extremist, ideology that puts forth a false choice between freedom and tyranny. Instead the gun reform movement needs to reframe the debate as a choice between gun violence and gun safety.
Nine months after the Sandy Hook school massacre, millions of Americans are actually living with fewer gun restrictions than before. Six out of the nation’s fifty states have passed stricter gun laws in the wake of the Newtown shooting.
New York, Connecticut, and Maryland have improved background checks before gun purchases, limited military-style, semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines, along with requiring safety training and strengthening measures to keep guns away from domestic violence abusers and the mentally ill.
Delaware and Colorado now require background checks on all gun sales. Colorado also limited magazine capacity.
California strengthened laws to confiscate guns from criminals and the mentally ill.
But many other states have moved in the opposite direction.
Arkansas now allows firearms to be carried inside churches and other places of worship.
Wyoming now lets judges decide whether to allow guns to be brought into their courtrooms.
Virginia made the records of concealed carry permit holders private.
This month in Missouri legislators tried to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that aspired to make it illegal for state police and other authorities to enforce federal gun laws.
Moreover, in Washington, after their defeat this spring, gun reform groups are not expecting to make any progress until the November 2014 elections. Even then it remains far from certain how many or whether enough gun reform candidates may win.
What accounts for the gun lobby’s uncanny pull across the nation?
Many critics blame the influence of the gun industry. No doubt the gun industry plays a major role. In January I reported first in Mother Jones and later The Progressive how George K. Kollitides II, the CEO of Freedom Group that made the Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used in Newtown, had quietly served on the NRA’s Nominating Committee for its own internal elections. Last year Freedom Group led the gun industry with record sales of $931.9 million. Freedom Group CEO Kollitides is also a Trustee of the NRA Foundation.
Other gun industry executives sit on the NRA’s board. One is Pete Brownell, the third-generation family CEO of Brownells, Inc., America’s largest supplier of firearms parts, tools and accessories, whose father and chairman, Frank R. Brownell III, is President of the NRA Foundation. Another is Ronnie G. Barrett, the CEO of the Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, which designed the first .50-caliber rifle for civilian use. A third is Stephen D. Hornady, an NRA board director who, like Kollitides, is an NRA Foundation Trustee. Hornady is the second-generation family CEO of the Nebraska-based ammunition-making firm, Hornady Manufacturing.
Other gun industry figures, like Larry and Brenda Potterfield of MidwayUSA, stay out of NRA board politics while still contributing heavily to the gun lobby. A Missouri-based retailer and wholesaler of firearms products, MidwayUSA, has contributed generously to the NRA through programs like “Round-Up,” which allows firearms consumers to round-up their purchase to the next dollar to make a donation in the name of defending the Second Amendment. To date MidwayUSA’s Round-Up program alone has contributed $8.9 million to an NRA endowment.
But gun industry money is only part of the story. Gun ownership may be down across the United States. But gun culture and politics surrounding it still thrive, especially in rural and even many suburban areas in nearly every state.
Moreover, gun rights activists have been organizing voters at the grassroots decades before anyone ever heard of the Tea Party. So-called Second Amendment activists may not have majority appeal, but they seem have to deep support across sizable minority of the population, which translates into a majority in many predominately white and rural voting districts.
Here the recall votes in September of Colorado are instructive. State senators John Morse from Colorado Springs and Angela Giron from Pueblo became the first elected officials ever recalled in the Rocky Mountain state. Colorado voters in their respective districts and across the state, much like voters across the nation, favored recent gun control legislation requiring background checks on gun purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to no more than fifteen rounds. The incumbents were put at a disadvantage in the recall election by a court ruling disallowing mail-in ballots. At the same time, they were helped by funds poured into the state by gun reform groups that in the case seem to surpass even campaign spending by the gun lobby.
The two Colorado state senators, one of whom is a former police chief, lost at the polls due to a truly impressive turnout by voters favoring gun rights.
This is what many commentators and NRA critics missed. The gun lobby may not enjoy majority appeal. But it has a larger army of organized, devoted supporters than any other single-issue lobby in America.
The gun reform lobby includes Mayors against Illegal Guns, funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, organized by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (who survived a 2011 shooting in her Phoenix, Arizona, district that left six people dead, including a nine-year-old girl). These groups have money, but nowhere near the NRA’s kind of grassroots organization.
This also helps explain the defeat in Congress in April of a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania. The bill was widely criticized as a weak and ambivalent piece of legislation that divided advocates on both sides of the debate, but it would have required background checks for at least all commercial sales of guns. Its defeat was a symbolic, but still powerful victory for the gun lobby, demonstrating the ongoing national power of the NRA.
What is the lesson of the gun lobby’s success since Newtown?
The NRA does not need majority support across the nation or even individual states. As long as it can effectively divert money and mobilize voters to defeat key candidates who vote for gun reform, it can tip local locations in its favor to protect its gun rights agenda.
Promoting any meaningful gun reform in the United States will require organizing people in their communities in a way that progressives in this nation have long dreamed about but rarely been able to do, or sustain for very long. Ironically, if done properly, the need for an effective gun rights movement could finally bring progressives such a chance.
What is not needed to effectively promote gun reform across the nation is for ultra-liberal cable TV commentators who live in cities on either coast throwing up their hands and asking why anyone would ever even need a gun.
Instead, what is needed to finally promote gun reform may seem counterintuitive to some progressive: to acknowledge and respect gun owners on their own terms.
People keep firearms for many reasons. Millions of Americans hunt prey from waterfowl to deer every year. Many homes across America have shotguns, rifles, and other firearms that have been passed down through generations. For many young boys and increasingly girls, getting their own hunting rifle is a rite of passage.
Many other Americans enjoy target shooting, including in highly organized competitions.
And a lot of people have guns for what they perceive as their need for personal protection. Pointing out, as many liberal critics are prone to do, how one is statistically safer in a home without a gun rather than with one is unlikely to resonate across much of the heartland. Instead effective gun reform advocates need to reaffirm Americans’ right to keep their firearms, while making the discussion one about gun safety.
The gun lobby’s core argument is not about gun safety, though groups like the NRA deserve credit, in fact, for organizing more gun safety classes across the nation than any other groups.) The NRA’s driving principle is that guns in the hands of citizens are the first check and necessary bulwark against the possibility of government oppression. That’s is why the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment into the Constitution, the NRA says.
“Our Second Amendment is freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea,” said NRA CEO LaPierre before a United Nations panel last year in New York.
“History proves it. When you ignore the right of good people to own firearms to protect their freedom, you become the enablers of future tyrants whose regimes will destroy millions and millions of defenseless lives.”
This is a bogus, ahistorical argument as I wrote in The Progressive in March in “Gun Control and Genocide.” But it is a view that many self-described Second Amendment absolutists in and out of the NRA share.
Only in recent decades did the NRA first become such an ideological organization. In fact, for the first 106 years of its existence, the NRA was a gun club devoted to sports shooting and safety training. But in 1977 the NRA got taken over by Second Amendment absolutists and underwent a metamorphosis into the gun lobby.
The late 1970s was a precarious time, marked by rising inflation, oil prices, and crime rates, along with a widespread lack of faith in government institutions. The popular film genres of the decade involved rogue actors taking matters, if not the law, into their own hands often through the use of righteous violence. Films like Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, Serpico, and Death Wish all come to mind, and each in their own way seems to validate many of the basic precepts of today’s gun lobby.
NRA conventions are filled every year with predominately white men who all seem to share a fear of the future. Economic decline, decreasing incomes and rising health care costs, combined with the steady pace of changing demographics toward an increasingly “browner” America, along with what many see as eroding social mores exacerbated by mass media, combine to generate fear. The American lifestyle depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings is long gone.
For many Americans, the guns they keep in their homes make them feel like they still have some power in the face of a world they no longer know nor understand.
“It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” said then-Senator Barack Obama in a famous 2008 electoral campaign gaffe that actually touched on some truths.
Ideological extremism is where the gun lobby and the NRA are most vulnerable. Clinging to guns and bibles as a way of trying to hang on to a fleeting past is not the same as arming oneself to fight a future war against one’s own government. But the latter notion has been the driving ethos behind the gun lobby over the past 26 years, even though, until recently, most NRA leaders tried to keep such views quiet and away from public scrutiny.
Now the NRA’s most frequent keynote speaker is Glenn Beck, the former Fox News commentator and rightwing radio talk show host. Survivalists and conspiracy theorists are only growing in importance at the NRA’s base, and they hold views that often go well beyond those of even conservative libertarians. At the same time, the NRA is fighting to retain its mainstream influence within the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Fear of a future tyrannical government is the main barrier to passage of effective gun control laws in the United States. In states like New Jersey, for instance, one can have an arsenal of weapons in one’s home to protect oneself, as long as the gun owner himself and each handgun are all individually registered with the state.
Most gun owners would have no problem with that. But the Second Amendment activists who dominate and support the NRA do.
Gun reform advocates need to promote the notion that government efforts to regulate gun ownership, to provide background checks for gun purchases, to prevent guns from being in the hands of domestic abusers and other criminals, to prevent guns from ending up in the hands of mentally ill individuals who have been found to be the shooters in so many recent tragedies, are all achievable, desirable ends.
And the legitimacy of the government’s role in regulating firearms transactions was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the same decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, that upheld the notion that every American citizen, unless there is specific reason to forfeit it, has a right to keep and bear arms.
In short, the gun lobby can be defeated. But only if gun reformers start seeing most American gun owners on they’re own terms and start organizing voters at the grassroots.