The NRA and How to Radicalize a Gun Control Advocate
Democrats have become more pointed in their stance on gun rights in recent years. Republicans lament this shift with little consideration of their own ever more extreme positions and apocalyptic rhetoric, but that’s another matter. In a lot of ways, it often seems that extremism on one side breeds extremism on the other, but that’s not always the case. Often the best response to extremism is steadfast moderation and pragmatism.
The deeper down the rabbit hole we go, on the other hand, the more I tend to think that it’s not Republicans themselves, but rather the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm that is responsible for the increasing polarization of the gun rights debate. Not because of its radical position on the Second Amendment, but because in the last few years its lobbying activities have had less and less to do with guns in the first place.
The NRA has always favored Republican candidates, in large part because Republicans are more likely to tow the NRA party line. But even in its earliest years as a gun rights advocacy group (rather than a sporting and marksmanship organization) it placed more currency in the cultural appeal of gun ownership than its practical considerations.
The NRA’s first presidential endorsement, for example, was of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Reagan’s most important contribution to the gun rights debate at that point was his 1967 endorsement and signature of California’s Mulford Act that banned the possession in public of loaded firearms; in large part a response to the Black Panther Party’s radical interpretation of the Second Amendment. After a political coup at its 1977 convention in Cincinnati transformed the NRA into a hard right political lobbying group and brought its interpretation of the Second Amendment into line with that of the Panthers, their endorsement was for the man who had signed legislation that made the Panthers’ guns illegal. From day one, rhetoric and cultural antagonism were far more important than action.
Since that election, an endorsement has had less to do with a candidate’s position on gun rights and much more with his or her political and cultural affiliation. In recent years those two factors have begun to fall out of sync and it is ever more obvious which the organization favors.
In the months following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, members of both parties advanced a moderate gun control bill known as Manchin/Toomey for the senators who sponsored it. The bill was defeated in the Senate, in no small part because of “no” votes from five Democratic senators (one of whom was Democratic majority leader Harry Reid). Only two of those Senators were up for re-election in the following year – Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. The NRA supported neither, donated to Republican Tom Cottons challenge in Arkansas, and both Democrats lost their campaigns.
In that election cycle, the NRA donated to 210 candidates. Only 11 were Democrats. In 2016, the organization donated to 220 candidates and only 4 were Democrats. Including the money it didn’t donate directly to candidates, the NRA spent $37 million attacking Democratic candidates and just $2,000 attacking Republicans. It spent $17 million in support of Republican candidates and just $265 (not a typo) in support of Democrats.
Perhaps more to the point, however, is the NRA’s endorsement of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In his books, Trump supported both an assault weapons ban and longer waiting periods for gun purchases. The NRA didn’t seem to care:
“We have to unite, and we have to unite right now. So on behalf of the thousands of patriots in this room and the 5 million NRA members across this country and the tens of millions who support us, I’m officially announcing the NRA’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president,"
NRA executive director Chris Cox continued to rail against dishonesty and corruption. And then endorsed Donald Trump. He stated that, without Trump, the gun rights organization “will witness the end of individual freedom in this country.” And then endorsed Donald Trump.
To be sure, Trump yelled repeatedly about guns and the Second Amendment (though his most prominent invocation was in a thinly veiled threat to the safety of his political opponent, for whatever that's worth to Cox's 'individual freedom in this country'). Any honest observer, however, had little reason to believe his latter position any more than the earlier statements in favor of various gun control measures. That didn’t exactly matter to the NRA. Their endorsement had less to do with Trump's support for gun rights and more to do with his antagonism of liberals and the rest of his cultural positions. That was laid bare in the NRA's first major ad campaign following Trumps election. In it Dana Loesch stares angrily at the camera invoking a mysterious and ominous “them” bent on the destruction of “our way of life.” The camera cuts to shots of protestors and a bloodied trump supporter (but none of the numerous protestors bloodied by Trump supporters) as Loesch invokes the “fist of liberty.” Not once does she mention guns.
Just weeks ago Trump stated on television that perhaps some guns should be taken and that we could “do the due process later.” In that one statement he made a mockery of the NRA's endorsement and the liberty they claim they prize, and laid bare the political opportunism and hypocrisy of the organization's political agenda. But that hypocrisy and opportunism are nothing new.
Any savvy Democrat has learned that the ire of NRA is unavoidable regardless of the position they take on gun rights so long as their other cultural positions don’t line up in the proper column. Even then, the D beside their name is enough to put a target on their back if there’s any viable Republican alternative at all.
The NRA has taken great pains to drum out the Mark Pryors of the Democratic caucus along with their conservative positions on gun rights. What reason have those that remain to moderate their gun control stance at all? It isn’t Republicans, per se, that have made Democrats embrace more extreme positions on gun rights. It’s the NRA's indiscriminate targeting of Democrats regardless of their positions that gives them progressively less incentive to moderate.
If Democrats vote against gun control measures and are attacked by the NRA then why not advocate for the gun control measures they really want, NRA be damned? If the NRA will endorse someone like Donald Trump with no record to speak of aside from public statements in support of gun control, then why on earth would an otherwise liberal candidate even try?
Hypocrisy has consequences. Political posturing and leveraging wedge issues to cover for a broader cultural agenda reaches a point of diminishing returns or even counter-productivity. Considering the overwhelming support of even gun owners for those ideas that gun rights absolutists consider apocalyptic erosions of liberty, the NRA and those who value its mission would be wise to consider if the organization's lobbying efforts have reached that point. My guess is that they did so five years ago.