In June 2017, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) was shot along with three others while practicing for the annual congressional baseball game. As a result, Scalise was in critical condition, and his survival was initially in doubt. Thankfully, after multiple surgeries, he was restored to health and was able to resume his duties in Congress.
But even after being directly impacted by the inadequacy of current American gun laws, Scalise, a Republican with an A+ rating from the NRA, did not moderate his views on gun control and continues to believe that the second amendment grants unlimited protection to gun ownership (Vogue, “Despite Being Gunned Down at Baseball Practice and Saved by a Lesbian Cop, Rep. Steve Scalise Is Still Pro-Gun and Anti-LGBTQ,” 10.09.2017). One would think that such trauma would have induced even the slightest change in his views on gun control.
What explains such intransigence? It certainly cannot be the desire for continued NRA campaign contributions. The instinct for self-preservation surely outweighs political self-interest. The only viable conclusion is that Scalise and the other Republicans who share his views genuinely believe in Second Amendment fundamentalism.
This argument contradicts a current narrative from gun-control advocates, which states that Republican politicians are beholden to the NRA because of its campaign donations and will continue to follow its every whim to keep the money flowing. An analysis that focuses on lobbying and special interests is de rigueur in the wake of the Occupy Wallstreet movement and the Sanders campaign, but in this case, it does not quite stick.
The NRA’s monetary contributions are relatively insubstantial when compared to other funding sources for Republicans. For example, in the 2016 campaign cycle, Scalise only received $4,950 dollars from the NRA (OpenSecrets, “Contributions to Federal Candidates, 2016 Cycle”) out of $3,565,927 raised in total (OpenSecrets, “Rep. Steve Scalise – Louisiana District 01”). It is more proper to view NRA donations as symbolic gestures of support than crude purchases of loyalty.
The true power of the NRA, as pointed out by Mike Morrison in the conservative online magazine The Federalist, flows from its highly organized 5,000,000 dues-paying members (The Federalist, “If You Want Gun Control, Stop Calling the NRA a ‘Terrorist Organization,’” 02.19.2018). These members can be mobilized to bombard congressional offices with calls and take up all room for discourse. Over the decades, this has resulted in the enshrining of a rigid interpretation of the Second Amendment as a fundamental tenet of Conservative civic religion.
In assembling its membership, unlike those who advocate for gun control, the NRA has had the advantage of a ready-made constituency—people who own guns (I know, a genius observation). It can draw people in on the basis of owning the same object and engaging in the same hobbies such as hunting, going to a shooting range or simply collecting guns. Contrariwise, it would be exceedingly difficult to create an organization with millions of dues-paying members based on NOT owning an object or on owning fewer of it.
The NRA was able to take its membership and turn it into a finely tuned partisan machine through appeals to constitutional originalism, America’s frontier self-conception and racial dog whistling. When Grant Stinchfield, the host of NRA’s online NRATV, wrote “Blame minorities killing each other not law abiding conservatives. Let’s look harder at broken families not gun laws,” he was employing the age-old tactic of pinning systemic problems on people of color (Twitter, @stinchfield1776, 10.08.2015).
Gun control advocates need some way to overcome this asymmetry in level of organization, cultural force and sheer numbers.
The brave students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have provided one possible path by working with Women’s March organizers to plan the National School Walkout and the March for Our Lives (Vox, “Students are Rising Up Against Gun Violence in the Aftermath of the Florida Shooting,” 02.20.2018). By binding gun control more tightly to other left-wing causes, gun control advocates will be able to mobilize more people to call their legislators or give the issue of gun control more weight when they vote in primaries or general elections.
Perhaps only such a partisan-slanted approach can make sure that the pressure for gun policy reform will not be shunted by opportunists into policies that harm people of color and the mentally ill to create the illusion of progress. Nevertheless, advocating a partisan approach runs into some problems. While it can be argued that taking an uncompromising stance on an issue like healthcare could be the best policy, it might be better to tread more carefully when the aim is to make millions of people accept restrictions on their death sticks. What is the furthest that gun control can go while keeping a social turbulence at a minimum?
Questions such as this will hang over us for the foreseeable future, and there are no easy answers. But at least as we figure out the way forward, we can learn a lesson from the NRA and remember to approach gun control as a broad-based culture war and not simply as a matter of elite corruption.