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The NRA As Snidely Whiplash

handgun display at a gun show
photo by David Yamane

When I went to college, I made a new best friend whose background could not have been more different from my own.

I came from an apartment on the 19th floor of a housing development in the Bronx. There were 500 families in my building alone, and more than 15,000 in Co-op City. My new friend, on the other hand, grew up on a ranch outside Big Sandy, Montana. It was more than a mile to his nearest neighbor, 15 miles to a paved road and 60 miles to the nearest supermarket.

Although there were plenty of guns in the Bronx in the 1970s, I never saw one myself until I visited my friend’s farm. It virtually went without saying that there were guns there. Sometimes the family used them for sport hunting; sometimes they used them to eliminate gophers and other animal pests. (A cow or horse can break a leg stepping into a gopher hole.) And, to a certain extent, the guns were for protection. If there was ever a threat to my friend’s family, calling the authorities for help was not likely to bring a timely response considering the geography.

It is no surprise that rural American households possess guns in greater proportion than their urban counterparts. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 58 percent of rural adults say they either own a gun or live with someone who does; that figure is 29 percent for urban respondents.

I’d be willing to bet that rural households also possess more chainsaws, tractors and plumbing tools than urban ones. What I learned in my time in Montana is that rural culture isn’t mainly about fishing or farming or shooting. It’s about self-reliance. In the country, you do more for yourself because there is no one to do it for you.

In the aftermath of horrific events like the shooting in Las Vegas, and the many mass shootings that have preceded it, there are almost instant cries for gun control – as if the legislation itself could serve as some sort of magic bullet. And as quickly as the calls for new laws arise come predictions that the gun lobby, epitomized by the National Rifle Association, will resist these efforts. The implication is that such resistance is purely a matter of putting profit before people.

So it was with some mild expressions of surprise that there is actually little public opposition, from the NRA or anyone else, as Congress weighs the possibility of prohibiting bump stocks. Bump stocks are devices that can turn single-shot rifles into rapid-fire killing machines. But fully automatic weapons in civilian hands have been virtually outlawed for three decades nationwide, with hardly a peep of opposition. The meeting of the minds on bump stocks, however belated, shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The frequent media caricature of the NRA as a tool of corporate interests simply shows the gap in understanding between city-based reporters and the country they describe. Consider this: The American Civil Liberties Union strains and stretches to claim 2 million “members, activists, and supporters.” Yet the NRA claims 5 million members, even when a poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly three times that many respondents proclaim NRA affiliation. The NRA’s critics are happy to seize on the higher figure, along with the NRA’s response to the survey results, as yet another point of attack.

In the event that sweeping restrictions on gun sales or ownership ever pass, we can expect them to work just as well as we have seen similar bans work on alcohol, heroin and undocumented immigration. All we could accomplish would be to create a more robust black market and, at the margins, to strip more law-abiding citizens, rural and urban, of a means of self-defense.

The sometimes-ugly truth is that what stops someone with a gun is usually a gun – either the shooter’s or someone else’s. I am not disputing the FBI’s standard advice: run if you can, hide if you can’t and fight only as a last resort. But if someone has to fight, I would rather that person be armed. Another person with a weapon is generally the quickest way to stop a shooter before he can claim more victims. It is also sad but true that, by the numbers, by far the largest number of those who die by firearm take their own lives.

Some supporters of stricter gun control laws seem to imagine we could solve our problem, and maybe defeat evil, by overcoming an organization powered only by greed. It is easy to find coverage of how much money the NRA spends on lobbying and political contributions. But money cannot stand in place of policy on its own. If money bought political success, Hillary Clinton would occupy the White House. Money can spread a message, but if it is a message people reject, money alone won’t achieve results.

The NRA successfully opposes many forms of gun restrictions not because it is fighting against voters, but because it gives voice to a large slice of the population. It just happens to be one that many in the media simply don’t know or understand.

I probably would not understand it either, except that I was lucky enough to spend some time in my youth on a Montana ranch. That is where I learned that not everything is the way it appears from the 19th floor.

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