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A History of Violence

President Obama’s immediate response to the unspeakable shootings in Newtown, Conn., was to call for people “to come together to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” But it’s precisely gun politics that have prevented us from taking “meaningful action” in response to a surge in mass shootings in recent years. 

The president’s inexact phrase leaves unaddressed what might be done. Gun-control advocates have called for reinstating the federal assault-weapons ban, limiting the capacity of gun magazines, improving background checks on purchasers, and finding more effective ways to keep guns out of the hands of those with serious mental-health problems.

None of this will happen, if recent history holds true. The National Rifle Association and gun-rights activists ensure as much.

The gun debate has become so one-sided it is specious to even call it a debate. Despite the increase in mass shootings, federal and state legislatures have been rolling back gun control and expanding gun rights, including allowing gun owners to carry firearms in national parks, churches, schools, and even bars. 

The three 2012 presidential debates yielded a single gun-control question. Both candidates answered it by acknowledging America’s gun culture and reaffirming their support for individuals’ right to keep and bear arms, with President Obama offering tepid support for renewing the federal assault-weapons ban.

The NRA deserves much of the credit (or blame, depending on one’s point of view) for the virtual disappearance of the gun debate since 2000. Only after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the worst single-shooter killing spree in U.S. history, was the debate briefly rekindled. The result was an NRA-approved law that merely attempted to fix inadequacies in earlier background-check legislation. Why has the NRA been so successful, and gun-control groups so anemic?

Yes, the NRA has a well-funded and effective lobbying wing, but much of the NRA’s power lies in its passionate and activist membership base. The NRA leads a gun-rights movement. Gun-control organizations have been unable to generate and sustain a comparable level of passion and support. They do not qualify as a countermovement.

After mass shootings, especially when the victims are children, the public expresses greater support for gun control. A majority of the population backs stringent waiting periods to purchase guns, a federal assault-weapons ban, and gun registration. But that support is fleeting. Gun control is merely one of many concerns to its supporters, accompanied or often trumped by other issues, including the economy, healthcare, national security, and more.

Conversely, NRA members and other gun-rights activists—many of whom dislike and critique the NRA because they think it compromises too much—donate significant time and money to protect gun rights. They volunteer for gun-rights causes, write their federal and state representatives, protest, and vote. Many cast ballots based solely or primarily on candidates’ gun views.

The NRA attracts intensely committed and deeply conservative members by instilling the fear in them that Democrats and liberals threaten freedom. The rifle association named its political magazine America’s 1st Freedom to convey their position that “their Second Amendment protects your First.” Members are commonly referred to as patriots and freedom fighters, the 21st-century version of the founding fathers.

As Charlton Heston, a former NRA president, stressed, the association’s members are charged with defending gun rights, winning the culture war, and saving America. Losing any gun rights is the first step along the path to losing all rights and freedoms, they argue, and the country itself. This is why the gun-rights movement will not compromise on gun control. It is also why the movement is able to mobilize passionate, unwavering supporters. 

The NRA’s message resonates with so many Americans because it dovetails with U.S. history and American gun culture. Whereas guns are symbols of death to gun-control supporters, gun-rights advocates identify guns with freedom and the American Revolution. Although much of it is mythology created decades later, America’s frontier history is also inseparable from guns. Not least, a deeply embedded American hunting culture also bolsters the NRA’s message of independence and self-reliance, appealing to apolitical gun owners. In a culture with an interwoven history of guns, rights, and freedoms, the NRA’s message easily attracts a large and committed base of support.

Of course, not all, or probably even most NRA members are so deeply committed. Polling data suggest broad support for some forms of gun control among not only gun owners but NRA members as well. However, these less dedicated NRA members don’t flee the organization when it refuses to compromise. They allow it to stake out more-rigid positions because they view the organization as the primary reason they still possess gun rights. They continue to be part of the gun-rights movement.

The only solution that will prevent or at least minimize the carnage from mass shootings, the NRA and their supporters argue, is to arm more citizens so they can confront the shooters. They believe defending gun rights—protecting and expanding individual rights and freedoms—is the only meaningful response to tragedies like last week’s killings in Newtown. So long as the ideology and passion gap remains tilted toward gun rights, the idea of the government’s taking meaningful action seems as hollow as the base of support for a gun-control movement.

Scott Melzer is associate professor of sociology and chair of the department of anthropology and sociology at Albion College. His book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War (New York University Press), was recently published in paperback.

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