News & Politics

How the NRA Made the Gun a Symbol of Tribal Identity

For years, the gun lobby has framed opposition to gun regulation as being on the side of angels in America’s culture wars.

Photo Credit: STILLFX / Shutterstock

A version of this essay, updated for AlterNet, originally appeared at the website of The American Prospect.

In the aftermath of the October 1 attack by a gunman on a country music concert in Las Vegas, the National Rifle Association fell silent. According to police, Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 before dying at his own hand as a SWAT team bore down on the room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino from which he targeted his victims. 

This time, the NRA found itself in a bit of a bind, seeing as how the attack in Las Vegas was a mass murder of country music fans, a demographic the organization has long cultivated as natural allies. This was no slaughter of gay Latinos by a Muslim, the mowing down of black church-goers, or a massacre of the children of liberal Northeasterners. Unlike those slain in the Pulse nightclub in Florida, the Mother Emmanuel Church in South Carolina, or the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Stephen Paddock’s victims included members of the NRA’s own tribe, a tribe it helped to create, using a fundamentalist interpretation of the Second Amendment as its creed, and fear of government and people who are not white as its animating force.

On Thursday, NRA leaders, taking stock of the national reaction to the carnage, issued a statement that, at first glance, appeared to be at odds with their customary opposition to any and all regulation of firearms. They would be O.K., they wrote, with restrictions on the “bump stock” device Paddock used to transform his semi-automatic rifles into a fully automatic killing machines. But tellingly, the statement did not call for making such devices illegal. And in the same statement, NRA leaders also called on Congress to pass legislation that, according to The New York Times, “would allow anyone who is licensed by one state to carry a concealed weapon to do so in any other state that allows concealed carry.”

As the scale of mass shootings in the United States has risen, a pattern has taken shape: the death of dozens in a single assault by a heavily armed assailant, followed by days or weeks of silence from leaders of the organization that bills itself as “America's longest-standing civil rights organization.” The “civil right” to which the NRA commits itself, of course, is not the right of non-aggressors to live unaccosted by bullets, but rather the right to bear arms, which it claims precludes all reasonable regulation of guns and related equipment designed for no other purpose than to kill human beings with increasing levels of efficiency. 

The NRA’s transition from an organization of sportsmen to an advocacy group for merchants of death was made possible, and perhaps inevitable, by the coalescence of the New Right into the political force that ultimately took over the Republican Party in 1980 with the presidential nomination of Ronald Reagan.

By 1976, the right was on the rise as Reagan challenged the incumbent Gerald Ford for the nomination. In 1977, a group of right-wing gun activists took over the NRA in something of a coup, described by Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, in his 2014 book, The Second Amendment.

Among the many contributions of the New Right to the noxious state of current American politics is its promotion of deep distrust in the U.S. government, especially in domestic activities and programs. Surely, after the resignation of President Richard Nixon once his criminality was exposed, or the revelations of the Church committee of government spying on left-wing political groups, the government had earned a hefty amount of distrust. The stoking of right-wing suspicions, however, was primarily directed not at surveillance programs targeting civil rights and anti-war groups—where the government clearly did violate citizens’ constitutional rights—but instead at the alleged intent of the government to deprive “law-abiding” white people (especially men) of their rights, foremost among them an implied right to supremacy over non-white citizens, particularly African Americans.

An old stereotype of Southern whites as drivers of pick-up trucks plastered with Confederate flag decals and outfitted with shotgun racks ultimately became a symbol of tribal identity, the tribe being people who feared their displacement in the emerging new social order. In the West, where the gun was already venerated as a symbol of the white man’s conquest over the lands of indigenous people, suspicion of the federal government, seen as the instrument of liberal elites prone to implementing troublesome land-use regulations, wasn’t difficult to foment.

Combined with anxiety over white men’s place in the social and economic food chains (where even the poorest enjoyed more privilege than black people, Native Americans, and non-white immigrants) paranoia over the government’s intentions served the New Right’s purposes, which were never anything more than an agenda to maintain and increase the power of those who already enjoyed it via the system of white patriarchy.

In Congress this week, a vote was expected on a measure, pushed by the NRA, that would legalize gun silencers and armor-piercing bullets. With the news of the slaughter in Las Vegas by a shooter who may have legally come by all of his dozens of firearms, that measure was put on hold. Nonetheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to rule out a future vote on the measure. Those, like Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who responded to the news by calling for strengthening firearm regulation, were accused by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of politicizing a tragedy. (Murphy’s advocacy for gun regulation, it must be noted, is driven by the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre by a lone gunman of 20 children and six adults in his state.)

Had Stephen Paddock issued his hundreds of rounds into a concert venue through a silencer, experts say, the death toll could have been far higher than it already is—an astonishing thought given Paddock’s status as having conducted the most deadly mass shooting by a lone gunman in modern history.

For years, the NRA has framed opposition to gun regulation as being on the side of the angels in America’s culture wars. In a widely circulated NRA video posted in June, right-wing pundit Dana Loesch all but called for violent opposition to left-wing protests. After issuing a raft of misleading statements—including the now-common smear of news reports as “fake”—Loesch says in the video, “The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”

Two months later, the streets of Charlottesville were greeted not only with neo-Nazis bearing clubs and other weapons allegedly in defense of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but also scores of amateur militiamen equipped with body armor and semi-automatic rifles, allegedly in defense of the same statue, which the Charlottesville City Council had marked for removal from a public park.

With the NRA having gone silent after the Las Vegas attack, author Louis Moore, who teaches at Grand Valley State University, tweeted: “Imagine losing your shit over nonviolent protests, but keeping your cool over mass killings.”

The massacre at Las Vegas appears to have caused some rethinking of the NRA’s expression of its agenda of weapons proliferation as a marker of tribal identity, given Paddock’s choice of a country music festival as his killing field. Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of one of country music’s most beloved figures, the late Johnny Cash, took to the op-ed page of the liberal New York Times to call upon her fellows in the Nashville-centered music community to “stand up to the NRA.” 

But as the ongoing battle over monuments to Confederate luminaries reveals, the dislodging of tribal symbols comes hard. As it is with the Dixie flag, so now it is with the gun and its accoutrements, even in their most lethal forms. The NRA may have made a small concession on bump-stock devices, but it hasn’t budged from its broader agenda of weapons proliferation and deregulation. 

Leaders of the NRA may be evil, but they’re not stupid. When it comes to hearts and minds, they know how to exact the support they need from the regular white people who form the majority of the organization’s membership. Reason rarely triumphs over the symbols of identity—at least not without a large measure of bloodletting.

Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

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