The NRA and Gun Ownership as a Political Identity

As more mass shootings rob innocent Americans of their lives, to the point where we more or less forget about them as soon as they happen (seriously, we’re barely talking about the Thousand Oaks shooting anymore, and that was less than three weeks ago) unless they somehow top all the ones that have come before (in terms of death toll, or novelty of targets, or vulnerability and innocence of the victims), the political debate continues to be wrestled away from legal and medical experts by the NRA, the political arm of a vocal identity group who cling to their beliefs, their peers and, of course, their guns.

Americans have more guns per person than any other country in the world, ahead of former and current war zone countries like Serbia and Yemen (to be fair, advanced peaceful countries like Switzerland and Sweden are also on the list, although these countries have greater levels of training and regulation, including varying levels of compulsory military service). Combine America’s large population and very high rate of gun ownership, and you come to the conclusion that Americans own between one third and one half of all privately owned guns in the world.

But it’s not just the number of guns in the country that make gun owners an important political force; it’s also how they view themselves and their cause. Candidate Barack Obama was heavily criticized ten years ago for dismissing voters who “cling to guns or religion” (sidenote: if you’re gonna make an off-putting comment like that, at least go for the alliteration: “God and guns” has a much better ring to it), but his juxtaposition of those two categories was telling.  If religious individuals are America’s first protected class via their inclusion in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, gun owners could be argued to be the country’s second protected class due to the Second Amendment.  Yet, at the time of the Constitution’s writing, the country’s founders did not think of gun owners as a special group of people (or, necessarily, of gun ownership as an individual right). That came later.

**Social Science Detour (feel free to skip if you’re not into nerdy academic isht)**

There’s a term in political science called constructivism. I often teach it, despite the fact that I (and I’m convinced, most political scientists) don’t actually know what it means. Constructivism is a complicated concept, but in short, it claims that the political identities, actions and interactions that exist are not based on some simple, easy to identify factors such as desire for power or safety or wealth, as earlier theories predict. Rather, constructivists argue that the ways people view themselves and their groups and how they interact are based on complex, changing social processes that create or “construct” share ideas that determine the ways in which people view the world.

If that all sounds like esoteric nonsense, let’s give an example:  Why are the United States and Canada so friendly (Trump-Trudeau sparing notwithstanding) when they share a massive, largely undefended border?  Some social scientists will say is because the two countries rationally calculate that neither would benefit from a war, or that they selfishly believe that fighting would cost too much (wars are expensive, and would disrupt trade – President Trump prefers cheaper methods of disrupting trade, like Twitter).

While these factors are all true, they’re not really the reason why, on a day-to-day basis, American and Canadian leaders decide not to go to war. Rather, these leaders don’t actively make that decision at all: war is simply unthinkable between the two societies, because history and culture in both countries have developed an idea that we are similar, cooperative nations and societies – we’ve constructed a worldview of the US and Canada as friends.  This was not always the case: during the unimaginatively named War of 1812, British troops from Canada invaded the US and burned down the freaking White House (who would have thought that a war between the US, Britain and Canada would be anything but boring and polite?), and US-Canada tensions persisted for over a century before fading away.

**Social Science Detour ended. You can wake up now.**

Gun owners in the US view themselves as a distinct group with an identity, camaraderie and interests.  This is not true of other countries: only a handful of them (some Latin American countries, as well as Liberia, the West African nation that was essentially founded as an American colony) have ever had a constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms, and most have been repealed.  The existence of a significant gun owner identity was also not true of the US for most of its history. The founding fathers surely didn’t think of gun owners as a distinct group from non-gun owners – guns were a tool to fight off the British and whatnot, not something that made you a different type of person than your neighbor.

Lots of things go into social construction of identity: interactions, explicit ideals and philosophies, laws, rules and institutions, etc. The “gun owner” identity evolved and changed in several ways.  For much of US history, while the right to own firearms didn’t constitute its own identity, it was tied to white identity, as black Americans were often prohibited from owning guns. In the 1970s, in the context of both greater federal gun control measures and public cynicism toward government after Vietnam and Watergate, a fairly radical group within the National Rifle Association transformed the organization from a hobby group to a powerful lobby (as detailed in an excellent piece by Vox).

It was these efforts that reframed gun rights from a collective to individual right. It wasn’t until 2008 that the US Supreme Court, after decades of judges being influenced by the NRA’s interpretation of gun rights, definitively ruled that the Second Amendment granted an individual right to bear arms (think about it this way: The Big Bang Theory is older than the individual gun rights interpretation of the second amendment).

In the process, the NRA and those influenced by its ideology convinced gun owners that they were not just people with a shared leisure activity, but a distinct group, and an important one at that (as they potentially served as the last line of defense against tyrannical government). Today, American gun owners view the right to bear arms as an essential part of freedom (74% of gun owners share this view, compared to only 35% of non-gun owners who believe that gun owner rights are essential to freedom).

Gun ownership as an identity doesn’t just mean that gun owners place a lot of importance on that particular issue. It means that they are fundamentally different than non-gun owners in identifiable ways.  Three maps highlight this difference well.

The first map is the 2016 Presidential Election map.  The second and third maps, via SurveyMonkey, take that original map and split it into gun owners and non-gun owners, respectively.  In other words, if only the gun owners in each state had voted in 2016, Donald Trump would have won 49 states out of 50, while if only the non-gun owners of each state had voted, Hillary Clinton, would have won 47 states.  The world looks very different to Americans who own guns and those who do not.

It’s ironic that Donald Trump, far and away the choice of gun owners, is willing to point our guns toward our southern border to prevent immigrants and refugees from entering the US, especially those migrants from the countries to our immediate south, Mexico and Guatemala; these are the only two other countries in the world that protect gun ownership in their constitutions. What could be more American than that?