Editor’s note: In the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Trump praised the National Rifle Association, while NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre accused politicians and the media of exploiting “tragedy for political gain.” This Monkey Cage piece on how the NRA crafted its politically active membership was initially published on Oct. 11, 2017.
Once again, in response to a mass shooting — this one the worst in modern U.S. history — many Americans are calling for stronger gun regulation. And once again, despite some Republicans’ signals that they’ll consider limits on “bump stock” devices such as the ones that helped the Las Vegas shooter kill 58 people and injure hundreds of others, few expect much meaningful legislation from Congress and the president — an outcome caused by the power of the National Rifle Association.
Most Americans support at least some gun regulation, including a federal database of gun owners, background checks for purchases at gun shows, and bans on gun ownership for those diagnosed as mentally ill or considered potential terrorists. But those gun owners who oppose any such measures are intensely political active, as is well documented. That vocal activism is crucial to the NRA’s influence.
How did the NRA make this minority so powerful?
Over the course of its more-than-100-year history, my research shows, the NRA developed a social identity for gun owners and then mobilized this group into politics by framing government gun regulation as a threat to gun owners’ lifestyles, values and traditions — an affront to gun owners and their very identities.
How the NRA “politically weaponized” its members
The NRA is the most prominent firearms organization in the United States and has been for more than 100 years. Its firearms programming draws more than 1 million participants each year. These programs help individuals develop gun skills while simultaneously pushing politically charged, NRA-generated ideas of what it means to be a gun owner. The NRA has intentionally used these programs for decades to advance a politicized social identity for gun owners.
To get a systematic picture of this NRA-sponsored gun-owner social identity, I analyzed all editorials in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine – the most widely circulated firearms magazine in the United States – from 1930 to 2008. The editorials show that for decades, the NRA has cultivated an image of gun owners as having a particular set of positive characteristics: They are reputable, law-abiding, honest, patriotic citizens who are self-sufficient and love freedom. And gun owners are presented as different from several distinct out-groups, especially politicians, the media and lawyers.
Over this period, nearly three-quarters of NRA editorials framed gun regulation as attacking gun owners’ identities. Rather than using technical, evidence-based appeals to argue that gun control won’t reduce crime, the NRA argues that gun control disarms law-abiding citizens so that they’re unable to defend themselves and their country.
So does this identity influence how gun owners view politics? To find out, I looked at the all letters to the editor about gun control in four U.S. newspapers — the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Arizona Republic — over the same period, 1930 to 2008. The answer is yes. Pro-gun letters consistently mimic the NRA’s political appeals. Nearly two-thirds of the letters use identity language that speaks proudly of “us gun owners,” describing them as patriotic, courageous and so on, in contrast to “those anti-gunners,” described as radicals, elitists and the like. Most of these letters talk about how gun control would hurt gun owners’ lifestyles and values. The mimicry remains consistent over the decades; as the NRA’s editorials change, the pro-gun letters change, as well, echoing the contemporary themes and descriptions of both gun owners and gun-regulation advocates.
In contrast, letters to the editor that support stronger gun regulation show little evidence of any social identity and do not describe any connection to a community of gun-control advocates. Far fewer than half of anti-gun letters use identity-based language. When identity language does appear, it’s usually because the letter writer is describing the NRA as a villain. Fewer than a quarter of the letters that support regulation personalize it by mentioning how such laws would affect the letter writers’ identities.
How the NRA mobilizes gun owners to defeat regulation
About two-thirds of the NRA’s political appeals depict gun owners’ identities as threatened by gun regulation. Often, the NRA then implores members to take political action in defense of gun rights.
And gun owners often listen. Survey evidence shows that they are much more likely to contact public officials and vote solely on this issue than gun-control supporters are. What’s more, NRA members have historically responded to the organization’s identity-based calls for action, with their letters and phone calls to Congress far outnumbering those supporting gun control as early as the 1930s, again in the 1960s and most recently in 2013. That’s true even among gun owners: NRA members are more likely to contact public officials than gun owners who do not belong to the NRA. Clearly NRA efforts to cultivate a group identity have been effective.
Over the years, the NRA surely co-opted and expanded some identity themes that already existed among various social groups, borrowing, for example, themes from rural life and military service. What’s distinct is how it articulated, disseminated, expanded and united these otherwise separate ideas to cultivate a devoted, politically active membership united around a common identity.
Will the Las Vegas mass shooting prompt congressional action?
The NRA has announced that it’s open to regulating bump stocks. But it linked any new rules to legislation that would enact nationwide “concealed carry reciprocity,” as it’s known, which would require states to recognize concealed carry licenses from other states. This would enable individuals licensed in any state to carry concealed weapons in every state. Since some states have much stricter requirements that must be met to obtain licenses than others, this law might effectively nationalize the weakest requirements and override some states’ stronger laws.
In other words, the NRA is offering to trade a minor concession on bump stocks for a law that would have a much broader effect. It may also be betting that pressure for action will soon subside, enabling it to eventually thwart new rules on bump stocks.
Whatever the strategy, the NRA is likely to out-organize gun-regulation advocates — unless that group also finds ways to appeal to the social identities of the majority of Americans who want stronger limits on guns.
Matthew Lacombe is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University.