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.

But the image of mayhem LaPierre conjures up nonetheless speaks to deep racial anxieties. Who are the knockout gamers? Who are the rapers? Who are the killers planning to collapse the society? And who are the mobs that will spread across the countryside after the collapse, looting and stealing the goods that can only be protected by an individual firearm? More to the point: What color are they?

The research of the great social scientist Robert Putnam has confirmed that a more diverse country is also a country characterized by greater mutual mistrust and greater suspicion of central authority. White Americans imagine the United States as even more diverse than it really is: In 2000, the Census asked white Americans to estimate the black and Hispanic populations of the United States. At a time, when the correct number for both groups was about 12.5 percent, white estimates averaged at nearly 30 percent for blacks and 22 percent for Hispanics.

The feeling of having “your back against the wall” is real and rising. And it is this feeling to which the gun lobby so effectively and deftly speaks.

2. Gun advocates’ policy prescriptions do not favor the wealthy.

The NRA’s positions may seem outlandish or extremist. Not only does it oppose all restrictions on firearms, but it battles with equal passion against seemingly uncontroversial law-enforcement and safety measures: trigger locks to protect against accident, microstamping to enable police better to trace ammunition used in crime.

But gun advocates are by and large uncompromised by the GOP’s greatest image weakness since the financial collapse: its image as a party of the wealthy. A new Glock costs about as much as an iPhone; an AR-15, as a new desktop computer. Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to spend $50 million on behalf of gun-control measures even allows the NRA to present itself as a champion of the rights of ordinary Americans against an out-of-touch billionaire—not an opportunity conservatives enjoy very often these days.

Conservatives also resent the gathering power of the rich and successful. Fearful of the poor beneath them, they also resent the wealth above them. In 2011, near the zenith of Tea Party activity, a McClatchy-Marist poll found that 70 percent of active Tea Party supporters opposed cuts either to Medicare or Medicaid. Tea Party supporters were notably unenthusiastic about upper-income tax cuts, with more than 40 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers opposed to tax relief for people earning over $250,000.

Whatever else you say about the NRA, its cause does not obviously improve the standing of the richest members of society. Indeed, gun rights can even be presented as a rare and precious means to equalize the standing of the rich and the middle-class, conferring on the middle class the security that the affluent enjoy inside their gated communities and doorman buildings.

3. Gun advocates offer their supporters not just ideological gratification, but actual personal empowerment.

Gun advocates depict a government that is increasingly remote and alien from everyday concerns, if not outright hostile and menacing. This is a widespread point of view in post-economic-crisis United States. Most conservative causes promise to bring the government closer to the people by having government do less for the people. For obvious reasons, that’s not an easy sell.

Gun advocates offer a very different message. They promise to put the means of self-emancipation from a dangerous world right into one’s own hands. LaPierre again: “In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive, to protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want.”

At a time when so many people—and especially so many white men—feel devalued and undermined by powerful unseen but inimical forces, gun advocates put the power to deal death at the touch of a button right into their supporters’ hands. Nobody feels powerless when he holds a gun.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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