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Guests applaud as Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, at the gun group's annual meeting in May.

Commentary

Why the NRA Stands Up for Some Black Gun Owners, But Not Others

"America’s longest-standing civil rights organization" is beholden to its white base.

The day after Philando Castile was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds spoke at a march on the Minnesota governor’s mansion. Reynolds, who filmed the aftermath of the shooting, made an unusual first demand for an African-American protester decrying police violence: She insisted police treat concealed carriers with respect.

Reynolds says Castile, who held a concealed weapons permit, told the officer that pulled him over that he was armed, a commonly accepted protocol taught in concealed carry classes. The policeman delivered contradictory instructions, she says, ordering Castile to put his hands up and also to produce his license from his wallet. Castile was shot attempting to comply with the latter demand, Reynolds says.

On July 7, the same day Reynolds spoke in Minnesota, protesters also marched in Dallas. The peaceful demonstration turned deadly when a gunman ambushed police officers, killing five and wounding nine more. In the immediate aftermath, Mark Hughes, who is black and was openly carrying an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle, was erroneously identified as a suspect.

Hughes’s brother Cory, who also attended the protest, defended the open carrying on Second Amendment grounds. Mark Hughes carried his rifle at the protest, Cory said, for “the same reason, that across the country, other people bring their gun: because it is his right.”

Here were people who might have become cause celebres for the National Rifle Association, the oldest and largest organization devoted to defending the civil rights of gun owners. The NRA aggressively supports concealed carry and has also backed open carry, though with less enthusiasm.

Forcefully defending the freedoms of Castile and Hughes could also have paid strategic dividends for the NRA. Since 2013, the gun group has waged a publicity campaign to recruit minority members, running ads and putting forward African-American spokesmen.

The group helped Otis McDonald, a black Chicago resident, successfully challenge that city’s handgun ban in the Supreme Court. It submitted amicus briefs on behalf of black Delaware residents challenging that state’s ban on guns in public housing. The NRA took up the cause of Shaneen Allen, a black Pennsylvanian who was arrested in New Jersey after she mistakenly believed her state’s concealed carry license allowed her to bring her gun across the Delaware River.

The NRA could have seized on Castile and Hughes’s cases to create a politically advantageous fissure between black rights’ activists and predominantly white gun violence prevention groups.

But the NRA didn’t do any of those things. Instead, after a licensed concealed carrier with no criminal record was shot dead by an apparently panicking police officer, the NRA said it would not officially comment until more facts were known. Hughes didn’t even warrant a “no comment” from the NRA, even though conservative writers in outlets like RedState eagerly took up his cause.

Why stand up for the rights of some black gun owners, but not others? When the NRA advocated for McDonald and Allen, its efforts dovetailed with the group’s larger political project of rolling back gun restrictions. But standing up for Castile and Hughes would have required the NRA to explicitly criticize police, which the organization cannot afford to do. That’s because the NRA describes law enforcement as an ally in an ongoing culture war against forces like Black Lives Matter, which the gun group believes would irrevocably damage the country’s essential character. Gun owners need to side with cops against critics, the group argues, not just to maintain law and order but also to preserve conservative values and lifestyles under threat from others.

Closely aligning itself with police energizes its overwhelmingly white member base, which provides the group with its political power. Right now, that base is scared that social change demanded by Black Lives Matter will come at the expense of whites’ own security and identity. The NRA has decided it must stay on its constituents side in a battle against what those millions believe is an existential threat, even when that means taking a pass on a fight for the gun rights principles it has sworn to protect.

The NRA “claims to be America’s oldest civil rights organization, [but] it’s not acting as a civil rights organization,” says Alexandra Filindra, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied the relationship between racial prejudice and opinions on gun rights. Filindra says the NRA has compromised its principles in order to develop a constituency of older white conservatives whose derive their identities from the gun group.

Put simply: The NRA needs white people. The NRA cultivates its political power based on its very close relationship with its engaged member base, which is much older and whiter than the rest of the country.

In a study released last November, Filandra and her colleague Noah Kaplan found that white people with racial prejudices were 25 percent less likely to support gun control after having viewed pictures of black people than white people with less racial prejudice.

The researchers interpret that finding as evidence that racial resentment is a significant predictor of opposition to gun control.

The NRA practices white identity politics, Filindra and others argue, a politics that sides with police against critics like Black Lives Matter, which it characterizes as enablers of criminals. Some people who oppose encroachments on gun rights may be as motivated by racial resentment as they are by any constitutional principle, Filindra says. The NRA, she observes, “has a membership whose demands, needs, and identity the group is feeding. It can’t contradict who they are and what they expect to hear. And the messaging is consistent with one group: whites.”

The NRA’s identity politics stands in contrast to the behavior of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights advocates like the National Lawyer’s Guild. Conservatives often tar the ACLU as a group of leftists, but the Union has defended the rights of right-wing groups like the Ku Klux Klan that have little in common with the ACLU’s own membership. The ACLU frequently argues in court for the Klan’s right to hold public demonstrations, often against local communities’ wishes.

Similarly, the National Lawyer’s Guild is an avowedly left-leaning group, but it provides legal services to anyone arrested at a protest. Lee Stranahan, a reporter for conservative website Breitbart News, calls himself a “tireless critic” of Black Lives Matter, and has covered many of their demonstrations in a negative light. He went to Baton Rouge after activists marched to condemn the the police killing of Alton Sterling. After Stranahan was arrested at the protest, the NLG provided free legal aid. Stranahan wrote that the Guild is an “Institutional Left group that was founded by communist attorneys and that has protected people and groups that I find repugnant. That being said: in this case, thank God for the National Lawyers Guild.”

The NRA has a strong incentive to stoke white fears by highlighting anti-police statements by blacks, and it’s done so for years.

In 1999, then-NRA president Charlton Heston gave a talk at Harvard Law School titled, “Winning the Cultural War.” In the speech, he cited the lyrics to the rap-rock song “Cop Killer,” by rapper Ice-T’s band Body Count. Heston decried the lyrics as “vicious, vulgar” and, importantly, “instructional.” Americans had a duty to resist these calls, Heston said, and join forces with cops against these threatening groups. He painted a picture of alliance between gun owners and traditional sources of authority that recalled the early Americans who won the country’s independence, “an aroused rabble in arms and a few great men who, by God’s grace, built this country.”

The gun group has also cultivated close organizational ties with the Fraternal Order of Police, the national patrolmen’s union. In 2011, then-president of the FOP Chuck Canterbury told the NRA’s top lobbyist Chris Cox that both groups had the same enemy: “Reckless politicians who interfere with law enforcement.” The FOP has backed the NRA by endorsing policies like the Tiahrt amendments, a set of funding bills that strictly limits how the federal government uses and publicizes gun trace data.

In 2014, the group told members “the NRA is your refuge” in the midst of a war against “a political culture where madmen are famous and good guys forgotten,” a culture that lets “crimes go unpunished, leaving violent criminals to prey upon the innocent.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam, the call to stand with cops against black critics gained new relevance. When Cox and LaPierre spoke at the group’s annual convention in Louisville in May, both stressed loyalty to police, arguing they shared values and a traditional American identity with the NRA (if not necessarily Second Amendment absolutism — police often condemn NRA-backed policies like expanding rights to carry guns in public or in places like college campuses). At the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Cox told the assembled crowd that being “suspicious of police officers” was “twisted” and “perverted.” LaPierre mentioned police first when he listed the sorts of Americans who make up the NRA’s ranks.

The group has stood up for white gun owners even when there’s reason to believe they could be dangerous and unfit to own a gun. In the case of Voisine v. the United States, which went before the Supreme Court this March, two white men from Maine challenged the constitutionality of the federal ban on gun possession for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Both men had such convictions. One had also violated the ban against hunting bald eagles, a national symbol and protected species. A poll conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine found more than 70 percent of Americans support restricting gun ownership for domestic abusers like those plaintiffs. The NRA thanked Justice Clarence Thomas for suggesting during oral arguments that the domestic violence restriction was a uniquely burdensome one.

The NRA appears to have let white grievance politics guide its role in the 2016 election as well.

Before he dropped out of the race in early May, Ted Cruz was the clear choice of orthodox gun rights voters. As Texas’s attorney general, he had submitted a brief in favor of the plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia, the Supreme Court case that established an individual right to gun ownership. Gun Owners of America, a group even more strident than the NRA, endorsed Cruz before a single primary vote had been cast.

But the NRA did not support Cruz. Instead, the NRA gave Donald Trump a full throated endorsement even though many other gun rights advocates were wary of him. For most of his life, Trump was a New York City Democrat. He’s expressed support for an assault weapons ban. He has criticized other Republican lawmakers for their fealty to the NRA. When he has tried to impress Republican primary voters on the issue of guns, he’s often done so in a tone-deaf way: When Trump accepted the NRA’s endorsement, he said that his sons, who go on big-game hunting safaris in Africa, “have so many rifles and so many guns, even I get concerned.”

The NRA’s message to members who disagreed with the endorsement was to “get over it.”

More important to the NRA than Trump’s suspect Second Amendment credentials may be the fact that he has demonstrated he can effectively mobilize the anger of white people in a diversifying country and changing world order. Trump attracted voters away from his more experienced opponents for the GOP nomination with his willingness to offend racial minorities.

He began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers.” This winter, he promised to ban Muslims from entering the country on the basis of their faith or national origin. At rallies, he’s encouraged supporters who violently attacked black protesters. He’s blamed the Chinese for the decline in American manufacturing and claimed China invented global warming as a fiction to limit American growth. He was slow to disavow the endorsement of David Duke, a one-time leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He routinely retweets white supremacists without apology. His last name has become a chant for angry whites trying to intimidate minorities in settings far removed from the campaign.

The unifying theme of Trump’s campaign is that changes at home and abroad have come at the expense of American greatness, which he says peaked in the 1950s. That was an era, Trump said in an interview with the New York Times, when “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody.” It was also the last decade before the civil rights movement achieved a string of victories like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which were opposed in violent ways by many whites.

Both the NRA and Donald Trump inspire loyalty by claiming they’ll fight for their supporters in what are zero-sum games of gun rights versus gun violence prevention, or liberal tolerance versus American greatness. By casting politics as a game of winners and losers, they replicate a pattern of thought identified by researchers in the minds of racist whites. For the NRA, the important thing is not the ideological purity of a candidate like Cruz. It’s an eagerness to fight for the same people that form the group’s constituency, in the same aggressive way.

In a 2011 paper, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel Summers of Tufts argued that whites increasingly believe that increased social acceptance of minorities has come at the expense of the dwindling majority’s own status. The authors cited survey data which found that both black and white Americans believed anti-black bias decreased steadily from the 1950s to the 2000s. But only white Americans believed that change was accompanied by a significant rise in anti-white bias — so much so that white Americans believe they are the now victims of more prejudice than blacks.

White people now say, ‘You know what? There wasn’t racism against whites in the 1950s but now there is and there’s so much now that in fact there’s more racism against us than there is against black people,’” Norton has said. “One job for a black person equals one job that a white person didn’t get.”

When sociologist Jennifer Carlson studied gun owners in Michigan, she found they reflected a similarly embattled mindset. The gun owners who spoke with Carlson, overwhelmingly middle aged or older men, turned to firearms to protect not just their physical person and property, but also their cultural identity as “good guys with guns.”

Filindra believes the NRA is aware that its members are motivated by these kinds of fears. “The NRA is an incredibly politically savvy organization,” she says, and “they know how to exploit and marshal the resources and their people.”

Advocating for Castile’s right to carry a gun or condemning Dallas police for their treatment of Hughes could undermine the NRA’s close relationship with its constituents if doing so puts the group in common cause with Black Lives Matter. As Filindra puts it, “Wayne LaPierre walking hand in hand with the leaders of Black Lives Matter is something that I don’t expect to see in my lifetime.”

[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]