Can Gun-Control Advocates Make the NRA Toxic?

The fight over firearms is fast becoming a test case for the potential, and limits, of stigma in U.S. politics.

Critics of the NRA protested the organization in 1999 after a school shooting at Columbine High School. (Gary Caskey / Reuters)

After the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, supporters of more gun control quickly pressured numerous corporations to cut ties with the National Rifle Association: No longer will NRA members receive a pre-negotiated discount when flying United, renting a Hertz car, or patronizing a range of other companies.

What remains to be seen is whether the success of #BoycottNRA merely denies NRA members a few perks or actually helps to advance changes in gun policy.

The answer will depend in large part on the effectiveness of stigma.

Skeptics of #BoycottNRA don’t think its success changes any fundamentals. The NRA isn’t a business that needs revenue or a club for people who want consumer discounts—it is an issue-driven membership organization that helps gun owners to secure liability insurance, provides training, and lobbies legislators on a range of gun issues. In this telling, depriving its members of consumer discounts won’t cause any significant number to quit. In fact, it might spark a backlash that boosts retention.

I started off similarly skeptical.

Policy is made by legislators, who are selected in elections, which are won by voters. Often times, the left pours energy into moments of cultural protest—rallying against globalization, occupying urban centers to protest Wall Street, chanting Black Lives Matter—but has little to show for its efforts when the cultural moment dies down, perhaps because of insufficient focus on concrete goals or mobilizing voters. Meanwhile, the right typically turns out to vote more reliably.

Now, however, I’m undecided about #BoycottNRA’s efficacy, in part because it took so little effort—its opportunity cost was low—and in part due to the words of non-skeptics, who argued that there was some wisdom in the approach.

A few invoked marginal utility. “Lots of people who believe in the NRA’s mission do not join the NRA,” R.J. Lehmann told me. “There is some set of people who would be in the latter category but for the benefits. This is true of every token given away by every charity. If I’m a gun owner I can free ride on the public good of NRA lobbying whether I pay for membership or not. Membership benefits are an excludable good that allow you to internalize the positive externality. At the margin, some who would otherwise be free riders choose to sign up.”

Others felt the NRA had an aura of invincibility in politics, and successfully pressuring corporate sponsors to abandon it might influence politicians to follow suit. (Was Donald Trump influenced in that way?)

Both of those factors seem plausibly helpful to the NRA’s enemies.

But many more people had a different vision of how #BoycottNRA efforts would bear fruit: They would gradually make the NRA and its members into detested pariahs. Among the explanations I got on Twitter when I asked what they envision:

  • “It’s the equivalent of shunning. On a large enough scale it works. Slowly but surely.”
  • “The strategy is to stigmatize the NRA as an extremist organization. A necessary condition of an organization being stigmatized is that major corporations don’t actively support it. So the boycott isn’t sufficient to stigmatize the NRA, but it is certainly necessary.”
  • “It’s not an end in itself. It’s a kind of moral signalling. The ultimate goal would be to isolate the NRA and its members and deny them social credibility.”
  • “Protip: Try the Wikipedia page for shunning and learn why the sh-t and blood reek of the white nationalist anti-government rhetoric of the extremist #kidhunting NRA dooms not just itself, but those who treat with it, to an escort from the table.”
  • “It undermines the status of the NRA as a mainstream organization. They’re smart enough to not want to become a 21st Century John Birch society: lots of membership but limited political clout because they’re broadly viewed as extremists.”
  • “It’s making the organization culturally toxic where it’s been impervious before.”

Whether that approach succeeds is what interests me most. I don’t actually have strong feelings about the NRA one way or another. But I continue to be fascinated by the complicated role that social stigma plays in American politics and culture.

Again, my initial inclination is to be skeptical.

Gun-control advocates have tried to stigmatize the NRA my entire adult life. Take their Denver convention in 1999. “Against the wishes of the mayor and thousands of bereaved friends and relatives of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings, the National Rifle Assn. held its annual meeting here Saturday,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The gun-rights group dramatically scaled back the gathering, from three days to a few hours, and eliminated the traditional gun show altogether. But the gesture was not nearly enough for many still reeling from the massacre by two troubled teenagers with four firearms and dozens of homemade bombs. About 1,800 protesters marched quietly from the state Capitol to the hotel where the convention was held.” Their signs said “Shame on the NRA” and “NRA, Pusher of Child Killer Machines.”

It is counterintuitive to assume stigma will be a more reliable bulwark against right-wing populist political outcomes today in the more gerrymandered, ideologically-sorted country that elected Donald Trump.

Indeed, most times that a left-of-center commentator declares that the press “shouldn’t normalize” the latest White House transgression, I think to myself: This stuff is all happening, and the GOP Congress shows no indication of stopping it, so critics had better start focusing on the substance of why it is wrong and the alternatives to it, rather than persisting in the fantasy that it can be stopped if only cultural elites marshal enough solidarity to deem it beyond the pale.

What’s more, stigma campaigns rooted in hashtag activism are unusually vulnerable to overreach and backlash: Moderate participants may direct their opprobrium at the NRA itself, which does take various positions that are out of line with public opinion, but it is almost inevitable that any sustained campaign will include voices that cast all gun owners as pariahs and wield stigma in off-putting ways that risk alienating a politically disadvantageous percentage of the electorate.

There is a simultaneous risk that anti-NRA stigma will be fleeting. It already seems to be displacing #MeToo in public consciousness. And what was the movement just prior to that? Hashtag activism has usefully surfaced a lot of important issues in the few years it has been around, but protest efforts that spread virally on social media face the reality that just one thing can trend at once. The NRA will still be focused on its agenda if ICE starts deporting young people who registered under DACA or if Donald Trump fires Robert Mueller.

Will progressives still be focused on the NRA?

Finally, succeed or fail, efforts rooted in stigma further polarize the country, which has costs, regardless of whether they are brought about by the right or the left.

As David French wrote after CNN’s townhall on guns:

Unlike the stupid hysterics over net neutrality, tax policy, or regulatory reform, the gun debate really is — at its heart — about life and death. It’s about different ways of life, different ways of perceiving your role in a nation and a community. Given these immense stakes, extra degrees of charity and empathy are necessary in public discussion and debate. At the moment, what we have instead are extra degrees of anger and contempt. The stakes are high.

Emotions are high.

Ignorance abounds.

Why bother to learn anything new when you know the other side is evil? It takes more than a constitution or a government to hold a nation together. The ties that bind us as Americans are strong and durable, but the great challenges that formed them are receding into the past.

For all those reasons, my inclination, if gun control were my aim, would be to identify specific, achievable reforms that a majority of voters already support, and to focus on pressuring politicians to adopt that agenda (or else be ousted by a coalition that makes the ballot its tool of change). My posture toward gun owners would be the respectful engagement David Brooks recommends. I’d expect to pass, at minimum, a voluntary no-gun registry and gun-violence restraining orders (two measures I support personally, despite my conflicted feelings on the broader issue).

But optimal policy aside, maybe my instincts about what works are wrong; maybe Democrats can win stigmatizing the NRA and its supporters without overreaching; maybe my beliefs about the costs of stigma to society generally are exaggerated.

Maybe focus on the NRA will endure longer than I imagine or recur after another gun tragedy. Maybe 2 years from now, the NRA will have fewer members and wield less clout; maybe policy will change in a direction proponents of more gun control desire, or the balance of legislatures will tip in their direction, whether because of efforts to stigmatize the NRA or in spite of them; and maybe the country will be no more dangerously polarized as a result of the fight.

The substance of what happens is one reason to watch the gun debate. Yet I’ll also be watching how it plays out as a test case in how stigma functions in U.S. politics. As ever, your thoughts on that subject are welcome—write