Samantha Igo, JHU
For the six decades following its founding in 1871, the National Rifle Association demonstrated a passion for both guns and gun control—illustrating that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. The NRA simultaneously encouraged gun-use and instructed marksmanship around the country while helping pass the first federal gun-control law in 1934, which mandated a tax on the manufacturing and selling of firearms, as well as required registration of guns when purchased. Then-NRA President Karl Frederick testified for the bill, saying, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
The NRA’s legacy of balanced gun control ended with the rise of Harlon Carter in the mid-seventies. His Vice-Presidency marked a far more politically-charged NRA, harshly advocating for gun rights and denouncing its past support for bills like the Gun Control Act of 1968. Carter openly admitted that guns falling into the hands of “convicted felons [and] mentally deranged people” is simply “the price we pay for freedom.” He arguably flaunted this freedom by killing a Mexican-American with a shotgun when he was just seventeen years old.
The senseless violence that ripped through Las Vegas last week brings to the forefront—yet again—the conversation of gun regulation in the United States and further perpetuates this sick cycle of death, anger, and failure. Nothing will change, because our approach won’t change.
In the turmoil following every mass shooting, there is always a crushing rush of emotional pleas, of loud grief-stricken demands for stricter gun laws. There is also the nauseating presence of statistics. I have seen the same screenshotted charts from PEW and Gallup across countless news sites contextualizing the appalling number of gun-related deaths and the efficacy of gun regulations. These statistics only appear in the short days following the tragedy, and are only brought out again after the next to prove a point that is clearly not being heard. Two statistics that should be discussed extensively, but haven’t been, are these: fifty percent of the country believes that gun violence is not a big issue, and even more astonishing, violent mass shootings do not affect people’s stance on guns.
Statistics will not change gun-owners’ minds—so what will?
In 2015, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times interviewed a group of pro-gun men, and in her interviews, the same theme arose: vulnerability. These men felt “naked without a gun,” and believed that carrying one fulfilled a sense of duty that their uncertain socioeconomic situation had stripped away from them. While putting food on the table was a daily struggle, they could at least protect their families from violence. Men used firearms to assert themselves, in much the same way that lower class, rural whites turned to Trump for change. Is it a coincidence that the pro-advocacy NRA also exploded in popularity during the economic decline of the 70s and 80s?
When the government threatens to impose gun restrictions, gun supporters view it as a denial of an essential part of their character, in a society that already makes them feel forgotten and marginalized. The NRA’s astounding influence stems, in part, from its ability to tap into this insecurity and transform it into vehement protest. The NRA masterfully mobilizes its base, in this way, by sending out emails after shootings to warn gun owners that their rights are at risk. This results in both increased membership revenue, such as the $157 million spike following Virginia Tech’s shooting, as well as higher voter turnout by pro-gun advocates—overpowering those of gun control, especially on the local level.
UPenn’s Alexander Garlick also suggests how the media’s narrow focus on federal politics directs attention away from pro-gun lobbyists manipulating state legislation. In the past decade, the NRA has helped pass over 230 bills at the state level, many of which have gone under the radar. For example, of the 172 gun laws passed following Sandy Hook, 70 actually relaxed existing regulations in Connecticut. Nonetheless, the media had fixated on “How the NRA Rates Lawmakers” (NYT) and “Who In Congress Gets the Most Money” (Business Insider)—not the profound ideological impact the NRA’s lobby has on the local level.
The NRA’s range of power is far more nebulous—and far scarier—in manipulating our democracy than we realize, and our response to gun violence has been more uninformed than it should be. State politics cannot be ignored. Reactionary, broad-ranging gun control must be added to specific policies centered on suicide and domestic abuse—two top causes of gun-related deaths. The NRA’s strategy of fear-mongering must be neutralized by a democracy lead by understanding. Until then, our democracy hangs in the balance with increasingly deadly consequences, and America will continue to stare down the barrel of a gun until we bother to understand why there is a finger on the trigger in the first place.