‘What is wrong with us,” Hillary Clinton inquired bitterly in Florida this month, “that we cannot stand up to the NRA and the gun lobby, and the gun manufacturers they represent?” She struck a hero’s pose: “We need to act and we need to build a movement. It’s infuriating!”
Implicit in Clinton’s lament was a serious charge: That the “us” in the equation represents the majority of American voters, and that the “NRA” represents an insidious force that has been successful in thwarting that majority’s will. Such presumptions are all-but ubiquitous in progressive-leaning circles. The NRA, President Obama told Marc Maron confidently in August of this year, has developed such an “extremely strong” “grip” on Congress that even “common-sense” reforms cannot make it into law. This, Obama submits, is democratically unjust. “I would particularly ask America’s gun owners,” he griped in a recent press conference, “to think about whether your views are being properly represented by the organization that suggests it is speaking for you.”
Seductive as it might be, there is little within the facts to recommend this approach. As Gallup confirmed just this week, the NRA is not a fringe organization that has managed somehow to impose a greatly undeserved octopus’s grip, but a mainstream plank of American civil society with approval ratings of which the vast majority of national politicians could only dream. “Despite a year of blistering criticism,” the polling firm notes, “58% in the U.S. have a favorable opinion” of the NRA — a number that “includes the highest recording of ‘very favorable’ opinions (26%) since Gallup began asking this question in 1989.” That trend line is moving upwards.
To grasp just how impressive these numbers are in context, consider that since June 2009 there has been just one week during which the twice-elected president of the United States has been that popular. Per Gallup’s favorability tracker, Obama’s latest approval rating is just 46 percent, twelve points lower than the NRA’s. This is no aberration. Over the last two years, the NRA’s rating has never dropped below 54 percent. Over the same period, Obama’s has never hit 50. A similar story obtains for Hillary Clinton, whose current favorability rating (42 percent) is 16 points below the NRA’s. Per HuffPost Pollster, the last month in which Clinton enjoyed NRA-like approval numbers was December of 2012 — before she re-entered the political field and set about reminding voters precisely why they dislike her. Who, one has to wonder, do we need to “stand up to” whom?
#share#It is customary for Second Amendment advocates to be told with a sneer that the NRA is “fringe” or “extreme” or even “un-American,” and that it does not so much represent public opinion as shill for a narrow and reactionary minority whose influence has become disastrously outsized. It is less typical, however, for the sneerers to follow their hasty logic through to its obvious conclusion. Over the last six years, the NRA has both enjoyed an average approval rating that is five to ten percentage points higher than Obama’s and suffered from considerably lower disapproval numbers to boot. In and of itself, this does not make the make the NRA substantively “right” or Obama substantively “wrong”; it does not tell us exactly what their critics like and what they loathe; and it does not help us to break down the extraordinarily complicated and often downright paradoxical polling results that mark the contemporary gun-control debate. But, in a system with pronounced democratic features, it does have an important bearing on the question of what is “normal” and what is “out of touch,” and it does help us to intuit who better represents the majority and who is running hopelessly against the tide. Most important of all, it raises an important question: If, as its critics insist, the NRA is dangerously outré, then what, pray, should we make of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are a great deal less popular? Is it time to “build a movement” against them?