The partisanship evident in the response to gun tragedy reflects more than different political interests and ideological commitments; it also embodies a little-acknowledged version of identity politics. That identity, forged over the past 80 years as gun rights developed into a potent political cause, leaves very little, if any, common ground for compromise on the issue of firearms regulation — and suggests that activists should shift their political efforts from gun regulation to addressing the root causes of violence in American society.
It wasn’t always so. From its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association, the flagship organization for hunter-sportsmen, focused almost solely on increasing civilian marksmanship and promoting hunter and shooter safety and education. If NRA members shared an identity, it was not a particularly political one.
That changed in the 1930s, when the widespread fear of organized crime and the potential for restrictions on access to specific types of firearms in response to rising gangsterism pushed the NRA into its first major political activism. The group quickly settled upon what remains its hallmark to this day: opposition to any legislation that attempted to deprive “honest citizens” of access to pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns. From the start of its political activism, then, the NRA connected ideas of character and citizenship to gun ownership.
That new political identity was, from early on, one of embattled opposition to government oversight. In its efforts to combat regulation, the NRA positioned itself as the leading voice for firearms owners, educating and encouraging its members to become activists on their own behalf — and to reach out to nonmembers to do the same. Firearms owners, even nonmembers, were encouraged by the NRA and local, affiliated rifle clubs to bring their values into the political arena in the course of their community’s efforts to combat gun control legislation.
In response to concerns about Communist collectivism during the Cold War, popular culture caught up to the firearms community’s patriotic ideal. Television shows and Western movies brought icons such as Davy Crockett, Hopalong Cassidy and Hondo Lane into vogue as archetypes of American independence. This glamorization of the “guns that won the West” led to increased numbers of firearms owners, but also to a popular embrace of the rifleman as a distinctly American identity.
Firearms owners no longer constituted a mere interest group like sugar producers or salmon fishers — they had taken on a political identity. Like family farmers, the rifleman came to embody a powerful sense of what it meant to be American, steeped in values of independence, tradition, self-reliance and patriotism. As Rep. Donald L. Jackson (R-Calif.) proclaimed in a 1951 address to the NRA: “The individual within the precepts of law and established custom, who in dignity and honesty has wielded his weapons in defense of principles and ideals, has never become captive. He, perhaps more than any other force or any army, is today the custodian of human freedom. He is the individual. He is the man with a rifle.”
The turmoil of the 1960s, from assassinations to street violence to apprehension about potential subversive elements in American society, put guns at the center of political debate. Although the violence of the decade pushed some activists to work for new regulation of firearms, it also stoked the firearms community into more and more vocal political activism.
President Richard Nixon’s calls for the silent majority to fight back against social permissiveness helped firearms owners connect with the Republican Party’s political message on crime in the 1960s, one that sought to solve the crime problem without new social legislation or regulation. Through the colorblind lens of law and order, the Republican Party and firearms owners forged a rhetorical bridge between gun politics and public safety — guns and tough-on-crime policies kept communities safe. That bridge meant it would be increasingly difficult for proponents of gun regulation to make their arguments on public safety grounds without triggering a response from firearms activists who thought their core identity was under attack.
After establishing its lobbying branch in 1975, the National Rifle Association and the broader firearms community further intensified their political activities and took even harder lines. In 1980, the NRA endorsed its first presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan. In the wake of John Hinckley Jr.’s 1981 attempt to assassinate Reagan, Congress once again focused on gun control, although it faced an uphill battle from Second Amendment supporters in the general public, firearms owners, the NRA and new, even more strident gun rights organizations. This uphill fight reflected the newfound political might of the firearms community working with their conservative Republican allies.
Even with its growing political power and the support of its most popular spokesman, Charlton Heston — an updated embodiment of the American rifleman and eventual president of the organization — the NRA and firearms owners were unable to block the passage of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act with even Reagan throwing his influence behind the bill.
Since the Brady Act and the 1994 federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, firearms advocates have continued to use partisanship to whittle away at federal laws restricting firearms, as well as to make strides at the state level to relax regulations on the carrying of firearms in public.
Most important, the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia et al v. Heller reinterpreted the Second Amendment as protecting “an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” That decision further strengthened the firearms community’s ability to combat efforts to regulate guns.
But why are firearms owners so willing to undertake the political action that produces these victories? For individual gun owners, firearms are not simply inanimate objects. They are the means to engage in hobbies and leisure activities, as well as a tool for self-protection. Firearms also create opportunities for community building through competitive sport, hunting and target shooting, and shared technical expertise through online forums and in gun clubs around the nation. All of these activities reinforce a sense of shared identity.
Being a firearms owner also means projecting a particular American heritage by assuming, in part or in whole, the mythological identity of American rifleman. The continual need to justify possession of firearms helps explain the vehemence with which many firearms advocates approach the question of regulation, no matter the depth or breadth of horrifying tragedy after tragedy. And just as the American passion for westerns glamorized guns in the 1950s, our current cultural obsession with post-apocalyptic fiction and its valorization of violence shores up a hagiographic view of firearms as tool and symbol.
Shockwaves of national grief and public calls for gun control reinforce the political activism of firearms owners, because they re-energize a long held oppositional mentality. Fully embracing identity politics in opposition to regulation, the firearms community makes potent political weapons of mythologized American values. By connecting concrete evidence of crime to abstract worries about economic, social and political decay, the firearms community exerts substantial power in the debate over gun control.
Until gun control advocates disentangle gun politics from the politics of public safety — addressing the root causes of violence rather than a myopic focus on the lethality of violence — gun rights advocates will continue to succeed with law-and-order appeals to the general public. That’s because those appeals, backed by the political power of the firearms community and tapping into a powerful American identity, will ensure guns remain a core part of American life.