Something tells me they’re feeling pretty uncomfortable over at National Rifle Association headquarters right now. It’s not just that they’re getting swept up in controversies they’d like to avoid; it’s also that the nature of those controversies threatens the most fundamental source of the NRA’s power and influence. That power and influence rests not on money, or political organizing, or even on sheer numbers. It comes from the widely accepted idea that the NRA is the representative of the tens of millions of Americans who own guns.
Yes, there are other, smaller gun rights organizations, and yes, even gun owners don’t agree with all the positions the NRA takes. But their status as the legitimate political voice of gun owners has gone unquestioned. And now there are more reasons than ever for gun owners to start abandoning them.
The group has been on a long winning streak, not only stopping any gun control legislation from passing Congress, but successfully pushing for expanded gun privileges in state after state and seeing its membership expand. Each new high-profile mass shooting leads to a run on guns, as gullible gun owners buy the NRA’s Chicken Little warnings that the government is coming for your guns. Those boosted sales are great for the NRA’s patrons, the gun manufacturers. And nothing is better for the organization than having a Democratic president in office whom they can use as a villain to keep their membership afraid and enraged.
But something is changing. I’ve noted recently that Democrats are no longer afraid of the NRA in the way they were just a short time ago. The shooting in Orlando — which finally brought the issues of terrorism and the proliferation of military-style weapons together in the public mind — left the group at a loss for how to reconcile real-world tragedies with its insistence that we’d all be safer if there were more guns around. And now there’s this:
After Philando Castile was shot to death last week by a police officer in Minnesota, his girlfriend said he had told the officer he had a gun and a license to carry it legally and had been reaching for the proof in his wallet.
The shooting led many to wonder whether the National Rifle Association would defend Castile’s Second Amendment rights.
When Mark Hughes was mistakenly identified as a suspect in the massacre of Dallas law enforcement officers — and inundated with death threats as a photo of him marching with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder made the rounds on social media — a similar question arose: Would the gun rights group that lobbied for Texas’s open-carry law stand behind him?
The answer to both questions has been essentially no, at least for now. In its statement on the Minnesota death, the NRA said it found accounts “troubling,” as “the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization.” But it omitted Castile’s name.
It remained silent on the suspicion surrounding Hughes, whom Dallas police initially identified as a suspect in the shootings of officers.
I’m guessing that their failure to talk about Hughes, who was fortunate not to have been shot by the police, had less to do with his race than the fact that any sane person would agree that coming to a potentially volatile protest with your AR-15 slung over your back — in other words, exercising a right the NRA has fought for — is positively nuts. As Dallas police chief David Brown said, “There’s been the presumption that a good guy with a gun is the best way to resolve some of these things. Well, we don’t know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everybody starts shooting.”
And let’s not forget that the man who killed those five police officers did it with the kind of weapon that is impossible to buy in almost every developed country other than the United States, an exception brought to you in part by the NRA.
That aside, all this has people suddenly realizing that the NRA is, for all intents and purposes, an organization of, by, and for older white men. Yes, there are women and people of color who own guns, but the particular modern brand of gun fetishization that the NRA promotes is overwhelmingly white. Not only that, the group’s regular apocalyptic warnings about the impending breakdown of society that requires you to have an arsenal at your disposal are infused with dog-whistles about “gangs” coming to kill you and rape your women.
Some of the NRA’s own members have expressed their disgust with the organization’s reaction to the Castile shooting, though I suspect the group’s reluctance to weigh in is more complicated than just the color of Castile’s skin. It isn’t that they don’t want to defend a black man, it’s that doing so would put them, at least for a moment, on the side of an entire movement of black people.
The irony is that what Black Lives Matter stands for — that everyone should have the right to go about their lives without being hassled, let alone arrested or killed, by the government’s armed representatives — is something that an organization constantly warning about the threat from jackbooted government thugs ought to embrace. And this is where things get tricky, and the implications of the NRA’s philosophy become disturbingly clear.
For instance: The NRA presents gun ownership as a bulwark against government oppression in the abstract. But what about in particular interactions with police? Do they they think that having a gun is a good way to ensure that police treat you respectfully, whatever your race? That raises the possibility of citizens threatening cops with guns, which is guaranteed to get people killed.
And it shows that the NRA’s belief that as many people as possible should be armed at all times and in as many places as possible doesn’t only increase the chances of people settling their disputes with gunfire, it also increases the chances of ordinary people, armed or not, getting killed by police.
The fundamental cause of police shootings is fear: the officer’s fear that the person they pulled over, or are talking to on a corner, or is running away or just standing in their own doorway, might be about to kill them. That fear is of course tied up with race; cops are much more afraid of black people, and black men in particular, then they are of whites. But in the moment, it’s fear that tells them to pull out their gun and fire. This is an excerpt of a 2014 interview with civil rights attorney Constance Rice, who has worked extensively with the Los Angeles Police Department:
They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn’t realize that they needed an outlet to talk.
They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this is cops who are 6’4″. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6’4″ talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.
Now take that baseline fear, based partly on the nature of their job and partly on race, and add in the idea that anyone they encounter might be armed. That’s the world the NRA is trying to create, and it’s one where more people will get shot by police.
You don’t have to be a gun-grabbing liberal to figure that out. The more gun owners consider the implications of the NRA’s philosophy, the more the organization stands to lose its claim to speak for all of them. And when they think about it, they’re likely to realize that the NRA isn’t fighting for the them. There are millions of people who have concealed carry permits — but most gun owners don’t. There are millions who own military-style rifles — but most gun owners don’t. There are a few who disagree with the idea of universal background checks, as the NRA does — but almost all gun owners don’t.
Should the day come when the NRA is understood by everyone to be what it really is — not the gun rights organization, but just one among many that speaks for a minority of gun owners and advocates a radical and dangerous vision — its influence will crumble. I’d bet they’re even more afraid of that than they are of Hillary Clinton.