Politics & Policy

The Left Misunderstands the Power of the NRA

Protestors march against gun violence in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S. July 14, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It’s not an all-powerful manipulator; it succeeds by reflecting the wishes of a large community.

It never fails. Every single time there is a mass shooting in the United States, a huge section of the Left singles out a single political culprit. Yes, they condemn the shooter, but it’s almost as if there’s another murderer out there, lurking in the shadows — the National Rifle Association. The NRA, you see, is to blame for America’s gun culture. It’s to blame for the lack of so-called “common sense” gun regulations. It’s the puppeteer, and GOP politicians are its marionettes.

It’s a pop-culture-Left idea — Jimmy Kimmel earlier this week claimed that the NRA had Republican senators’ “balls in a money clip” — and the elite Left analyzes the NRA’s influence like it’s breaking down the Zapruder film. Experts analyze the organization’s evolution from hunter-safety organization to gun-rights group, and left-wing social media pass around charts of NRA political donations as if those modest sums dictated the outcome of some of America’s most important civil-rights debates.

Journalists often treat the NRA differently from every other consequential activist group in the United States. Yes, they recognize that liberal groups like the National Education Association and Planned Parenthood are important, but they do not treat progressive politicians as those organizations’ puppets. Instead, they do the accurate thing: They cast progressive politicians and progressive organizations as part and parcel of a larger progressive community that shares certain ideas and values and speaks for tens of millions of American citizens.

Why not treat the NRA in the same way?

At the risk of going full Star Wars nerd, it’s the difference between treating groups like the Sith or like the Jedi. For all too many journalists and pundits, the NRA is the Darth Sidious of the American republic, the malicious manipulative force that poisons our citizenry and corrupts our politics. Powerful progressive organizations, by contrast, are the engines of social justice, the persuasive force that helps put our nation on the right side of history.

Why the difference? Why do progressives ascribe such awesome power to the NRA? I’d suggest that one explanation is confusion. Simply put, the progressive movement is used to winning its culture wars. It’s used to seeing “progress” on its core issues. When the mighty combination of pop culture, the religious Left, the academy, and the Democratic party unite, they usually get results. With the exception of a stagnant abortion argument, progressives have unquestionably moved the needle to the left on a number of vital cultural fronts.

No one who actually inhabits red America can credibly think that the NRA is the hinge, that disabling or transforming the NRA will decisively swing our national gun debate.

Not so in the gun debate. While the Left, of course, has solidified its hold on progressive urban enclaves, it has been thoroughly and completely routed in much of the rest of the country. The debate hasn’t even been close. For almost a quarter-century, state legislatures have been steadily loosening gun restrictions, Americans have gone on a historic gun-buying spree, and citizens have obtained concealed-carry permits by the millions. In short, “gun culture” has entrenched itself in American communities from coast to coast.

No doubt the NRA has been influential. No doubt it does vital work informing and mobilizing gun owners. But no one who actually inhabits red America can credibly think that the NRA is the hinge, that disabling or transforming the NRA will decisively swing our national gun debate.

Imagine if one day the Left got its wish and the NRA board of directors suddenly “evolved” on gun rights. At a stroke they changed its focus to gun safety, hunting, and target shooting; trap and skeet became more important than assault-weapons bans or concealed carry. Would America change? Hardly. Within days, millions of frustrated and angry gun owners would coalesce behind one or more competing organizations, the lobbying apparatus would rebuild, and we’d be right back where we are today — just with a different organization leading the charge.

The NRA is powerful for precisely the reason most potent progressive organizations are powerful. Like those progressive counterparts, the NRA is an effective part of a larger community, and it is effective precisely because it persuasively expresses the will of its members and allies. It represents those who understand and adhere to the central truths of American “gun culture.” We each possess an unalienable and inherent right of self-defense, a lawfully armed citizenry is a free citizenry, and no government ever constructed has merited the total trust of its people.

The Left can challenge the NRA all it wants, but until it defeats those ideas, it will not transform American attitudes toward guns. Or let’s put it another way: In the Left’s fight for gun control, the great bogeymen aren’t the leaders of the NRA, they’re the Founders of our country. After all, it’s the Founders’ ideals the NRA defends, and should the NRA ever drop that standard, others would pick it up and carry it through the ideological wars to come.


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