If you took gun advocates at their word, you might think they're enormously displeased when President Obama discusses measures like the expansion (or if you like, clarification) of the background check system that he announced on Tuesday. But the truth is this: When Obama talks about guns, the National Rifle Association couldn't be happier. When Republican politicians decry Obama's moves as a dire threat to Second Amendment rights ("Obama wants your guns" declares a web page the Ted Cruz campaign set up in response, portraying the president as some kind of quasi-fascist commando presumably about to kick down your door), they smile in satisfaction. That's because the NRA and the gun manufacturers are in a symbiotic relationship, where they both benefit whenever guns become a political issue.
For the NRA, it's about members and money. For the gun manufacturers, it's about sales and protection from legal liability. And as long as gun owners are kept agitated, angry, and afraid, they both win.
Here's how it works. There's a mass shooting, then President Obama suggests we really need to do something about gun violence. Maybe he has a specific proposal as he did this week, or maybe he doesn't. But the details don't matter. Immediately, the NRA condemns him and other Democrats, then shouts, "They're coming for your guns!" to its members, and all gun owners. A healthy chunk of those gun owners respond by rushing down to the gun store to buy more guns, lest they miss their chance before Obama comes to take them away. The threat always turns out to be imaginary; more background checks wouldn't stop anyone legally authorized to buy a gun from doing so, let alone take away guns people already own. But no one seems to notice that the NRA is the boy who cried "wolf" again and again. Within a month or two, the cycle will repeat itself.
The NRA gets tens of millions of dollars from gun manufacturers, through a variety of channels, not just checks but advertising in NRA publications and special promotions the manufacturers run. For instance, every time someone buys a Ruger, the company donates $2 to the NRA. Buy one from Taurus, and they'll pay for a year's membership in the NRA.
And even though the relationship isn't always perfectly friendly — the NRA has organized boycotts of manufacturers it felt weren't towing the properly extreme line on regulations — with the NRA's help, there's never been a better time to be in the gun business. Gun sales are booming, and 2015 was the best year yet. We can use FBI background checks as a proxy for sales (even though many sales don't require a background check), and last year, the agency performed a record 23 million checks. That has more than doubled just since 2007, which was by sheer coincidence the year before Barack Obama got elected.
What's particularly remarkable about this increase in gun sales is that it comes at a time when gun ownership is on a long, steady decline. With fewer Americans living in rural areas and hunting no longer as popular a recreational activity as it once was, far fewer Americans own guns today than a generation or two ago. According to data from the General Social Survey, in 1977, 50 percent of Americans said there was a gun in their home; by 2014 the number had declined to 31 percent. That's still a lot, of course, but given the demographics of gun ownership — among other things, members of fast-growing minority groups like Hispanics are far less likely to own guns — the downward trend will probably continue.
The numbers tell the story of a transformation in gun culture, from many more people owning a gun or two (often a rifle or a shotgun) to a smaller number of owners each buying many more guns, mostly handguns. And this is just what the NRA encourages, by feeding twin climates of fear. First, the organization, particularly its chief Wayne LaPierre, regularly describes America as a kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape right out of Mad Max, where only the armed can survive. As he wrote in a 2013 article, "Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe. It's not paranoia to buy a gun. It's survival."
Second, the NRA cries that no matter what's going on in the political world, it portends an imminent massive gun confiscation. President Obama wants more background checks? Nope, he's really coming to take your guns. There's an election coming up? If Democrats win, they're going to take your guns. You shouldn't just have a gun, you should have lots of guns, and you should buy more right now because you never know when the government are going to send their jackbooted thugs to invade your home and take them away.
What do you call the frightened, paranoid, insecure guy having a midlife crisis who prepares for the inevitable breakdown of society and shakes his fist at the president? You call him a customer. He's the one who responds to every "urgent" appeal from the NRA to donate a few more dollars and go buy another rifle or handgun or two, while the manufacturers watch their profits rise and their stock prices soar. He's money in the bank.