A clerk at Freddie Bear Sports in Illinois shows a customer an AK-47 style rifle on Dec. 17. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The president of the National Rifle Association says President Obama is to blame for the surge in weapons stockpiling after the recent spate of mass shootings. He's right. But that's only part of the story. The reason why Americans are afraid is because the NRA exists to make them afraid, as does (as I and many others have explained) the echochamber that the conservative activist media lives in.
It's not that the NRA is trying to push up gun sales, although their corporate members I'm sure are happy with that as an after effect. (These corporations give heavily to the NRA's "non-profit" advocacy arms.) It's that the organization requires a climate of fear to justify its existence. A climate of reasonableness or deference is not what our political culture incentivizes. Organizations that adhere to a principle, even if that principle is unyielding in the face of real-world events, are staples of a mature democracy.
Fear is an extraordinarily powerful emotion. Remember the Boogeyman? The monster who lived underneath your bed? To protect yourself, you'd make sure to have as many stuffed animals as possible. You'd double your blanket armament. Even with your parents' comforting words, you might even stay up all night.
Well, Obama is the Boogeyman. The fear that he's going to take away guns is legitimate. The fact underlying that belief is false. The gulf between those two is what ideological lobbies like the NRA exist to exploit. Here is one way: Though no one from the administration has actually revealed what type of assault weapons will be banned, a lot of people seem to think they know, and they're buying specific guns that were banned temporarily during the life of the last assault weapons law.
One toxic consequence of this fear, and a reason why the NRA knows it is useful, is that even though most Americans believe in some form of gun control, and most gun owners do, the more crazy the NRA becomes, the more liberals will resort to calling the NRA "gun nuts" and the more polarized the debate becomes on an elite level, the more the average gun owner will find him or herself having to take sides. And if those sides are defined only by absolutely no restrictions on guns and ammo versus complete confiscation and denial, then the majority of those in rural America who own guns, and the strong plurality of those in suburban America who do, are going to have to choose sides.
Democrats don't know how to talk about guns.
The view among many scholars of the subject is that the American gun culture is intrinsic to the history of American politics and American violence, to the history of the subjugation of Indians, of blacks and of women, to the pursuit of Manifest Destiny and imperial conquests in Mexico and elsewhere. The scholarship, however, point to a way through: There is significant evidence that guns were not seen simply as a thing in the early decades of the country. Guns were special and those who possessed them had an obligation not just to themselves but also to the polity.
That obligation included responsible use, and after the 2nd amendment was passed, the number of gun regulations in states and localities expanded significantly. It was absolutely OK to regulate gun use; that wasn't terribly controversial until the 1960s, actually. But regulation was predicated on men being able to possess them in the first place. One example: In Pennsylvania, if you refused to swear a loyalty oath to the state during the American revolution, your firearm could be confiscated. Massachusetts forbade those who participated in Shay's rebellion from re-arming themselves, ever. What Fordham University historians Saul Cornell and Nathan DeDino call the "civic character" of gun ownership might well be a way to discuss the debate going forward.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- You should be furious about Hollywood's gutless retreat on The Interview
- Why torture doesn't work: A definitive guide
- Hey, bosses: Stop giving bonuses to your employees
- Why the Sony hack changes everything
- Capitalism isn't a cure-all for Cuba
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
Subscribe to the Week