Columns » Jay Barth

Gun politics

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"You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you." Despite that promise by President Trump at the National Rifle Association's annual convention in April, the days ahead are going to produce challenges for the gun rights lobby. While no one should doubt the NRA's long-term health, the landscape of gun politics in the United States is changing in a direction that will force significant strategic shifts for the gun lobby. And, the organization's stumbled reaction to the verdict in the Philando Castile case June 16 shows that it is not fully prepared for this new era.

The Obama era was extraordinarily successful for the gun rights lobby. Despite overwhelming public support for modest reforms to control access to guns nationally, the GOP-controlled Congress resisted President Obama's calls to pass a bill that would have would have closed the gun-show and internet-sales loopholes in existing background check policy even after a series of mass shootings, including the late 2012 elementary school assault in Newtown, Conn. Moreover, in the 2010 McDonald decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an individual's right to bear arms found in the Second Amendment applied also to regulations passed by states and localities. But, the real success for the NRA and allied organizations came at the state level, where the organization succeeded in passing law upon law that expanded gun rights across the country.

In a piece I co-authored with Gary Reich published recently in Social Science Quarterly, fears that President Obama threatened gun rights drove those state-level dynamics. Specifically, gun and ammunition purchases popped up dramatically across the nation in sync with the 2008 and 2012 Obama victories. However, they did not increase evenly; in some states, including Arkansas, there were dramatic increases and in others new purchases stayed relatively flat. It was in those states where upticks in gun purchases occurred that gun liberalization efforts in states were most likely to succeed. Employing effective grassroots and social media networks and messaging that highlighted the threat to guns created by the Obama administration, the NRA was able to capitalize on concerns among gun enthusiasts of a new and onerous regime of firearms restrictions in those states as the rush of firearms and ammunitions sales provided fertile ground for the NRA to influence subsequent state legislation. In such friendly environs, the organization's state-level spending produced expanded gun rights.

The NRA was fully prepared for a Hillary Clinton presidency. If Clinton had won in November, the dynamic experienced during the Obama years would have continued to play out with Clinton easing into the Obama role of constant threat to gun rights. Like most, however, the gun rights movement was surprised by the Trump victory. The patterns surrounding the prior two presidential elections reversed and gun sales have dropped since the election of a man who said after his victory, "The gun rights community can breathe again." (In the first three months of 2017, sales dropped by 14 percent compared to a year earlier.) Interestingly, though, there is some evidence gun sales have popped up among another group: African-Americans. While demographic data is not regularly collected on gun purchasers, sales did increase in heavily black states and anecdotal evidence from gun storeowners notes a rise in African-American shoppers. Moreover, the National African American Gun Association, which formed in 2015, has more than doubled its membership since the election. (To be sure, with fewer than 20,000 members, the NAAGA remains tiny compared to the NRA's millions of members.)

Despite some clear efforts to reach out to persons of color starting in 2013 with targeted advertising, the NRA is challenged in turning these new gun owners into activists. Thus, the heightened success of NAAGA. The NRA's "non-reaction" (in the words of commentator Jelani Cobb) to the innocent verdict in the trial of the St. Paul policeman who shot Philando Castile, a concealed-carry permit holder, shows the difficulty the group has in fully embracing diverse gun owners. Colion Noir, the lead in the NRA's outreach to African-Americans, was sharply critical of the verdict, but the organization's official response — "it is important for the NRA not to comment while the investigation is ongoing," — was halfhearted at best.

Certainly, as the debate on guns on campus in the Arkansas legislature last year showed, the politics of guns has not gone away entirely in the states. Moreover, the NRA remains a potent force in stymying gun control efforts because of its institutional advantages in the political arena. Since the group became politicized in the late 1970s, it has also shown an impressive adaptability to changing dynamics and it will figure out how to play offense in this new landscape. But, in the short run, the demise of the Obama threat and the increasing diversity of new gun owners creates very real challenges for the NRA as it attempts to achieve its ultimate goals on expanding gun access across the country.

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