Why Gun-Rights Backers Win While Other Conservative Causes Lose

The NRA offers an outlet for the right's cultural anxieties that is clothed in a populist message of empowerment.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

National Review’s Jim Geraghty posed a pointed question from the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting this weekend: Why do gun-rights supporters win when other conservative causes lose?

And in fact over the past 20 years, gun advocates have scored an astounding string of successes:

  • All 50 states now issue concealed-carry permits to allow approved gun owners to carry firearms into public places. In many states, permit holders may carry guns even into bars and non-TSA-patrolled areas of airports.
  • In 2008, gun advocates persuaded the Supreme Court to overrule a century of precedent and redefine the Second Amendment not as a right of state governments to form militias but as an individual right to acquire private firearms.
  • Gun advocates persuaded Congress in 2004 to let lapse the Clinton-era ban on assault rifles. In the mid-1990s, they voted to halt government research into the public-health effects of gun ownership when that research yielded uncongenial evidence.
  • No crime or atrocity, not even the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has checked the strong trend of U.S. public policy to make ever more lethal weapons ever more easily available to ever more people, including people with histories of domestic violence.

So congratulations to the NRA: mission accomplished!

Even more impressive, this string of victories was scored as gun ownership in America tumbled. Only about one-third of American households now own a gun, compared to about one-half in 1973. Much of this decline can be traced to the fading of hunting as an American pastime. Only about 6 percent of Americans hunt even once in a year. That’s just slightly more than the number who attended a ballet performance: 3.9 percent.

Yet a smaller group of gun owners manages to exercise more political power. As gun ownership has dwindled, the remaining cohort has coalesced into a compact and self-conscious minority, for whom guns represent an ideology even more than a sport or hobby.

Republicans are nearly twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats are.

White Americans are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhite Americans.

Among Americans under age 30, only about one in five owns a gun. Among Americans over age 50, one in three owns a gun.

Nearly half of men own a gun; only 13 percent of women do.

Southerners are 50 percent more likely to own a gun than Easterners, the South being the most gun-owning region and the East being the least.

Add it all up, and the core gun constituency looks a lot like the Tea Party on the firing range: Two-thirds of American households own no guns at all. The vast majority of households that own a gun own only one. Opposing them, a small minority—about 6 percent of American households—have amassed 65 percent of the nation’s privately owned firearms. That group is very white, very Southern, and very conservative indeed.

This small group is seized by a profound sense of loss and alienation from the American majority. As NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told his membership in Indianapolis:

Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding.

Those words could be uttered by many different conservative leaders about many different issues. With guns, however, the message has proven uniquely successful. Why?

1. The gun issue allows conservatives to express ethnic and cultural anxieties in ways that are not overtly racial.

America is changing in ways many conservatives find unwelcome. The election of Barack Obama symbolized those changes—and has in turn accelerated them. As the spectacular flameout of Cliven Bundy demonstrates, most conservatives find it difficult to express their opposition to these changes in ways that resonate with a large public. Gun owners have found that way.

LaPierre again:

We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?

This language is studiously racially neutral. The NRA works hard to present itself as a civil-rights organization for people of all races. NRA members will even tell you, quite falsely but very sincerely, that the group was founded after the Civil War to uphold the gun rights of freed slaves.

Presented by

David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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