The National Rifle Association has identified a new enemy: “the violent left.” In a series of incendiary videos released since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the gun-rights group has warned that liberals pose a dire threat to gun-owners, and to American freedom more broadly. The president has fanned the same flames, blaming “many sides” and the “alt-left” for violence in Charlottesville, despite clear evidence that white nationalists — some toting assault-style weapons — shouldered the blame.
To help make sense of the NRA and the president’s messaging, and to evaluate the outsized role guns have played in escalating tensions, I convened a Slack roundtable with three political scientists who have published research in the past year about firearms and politics.
I invited Donald Haider-Markel of the University of Kansas, who edited a special issue of the Social Science Quarterly devoted to gun politics; Alexandra Filindra of the University of Illinois-Chicago, who studied gun policy attitudes among different racial groups and published a paper on racial resentment and gun control; and Jason McDaniel of San Francisco State University, who analyzed voting record data to correlate gun ownership with attitudes toward race.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alex: Let’s start with Charlottesville and the spreading street actions around the country. White nationalists, militias, and Trump supporters seem to be echoing the same concerns about the threat posed by the “violent left” as the NRA calls it. In a conversation with me last week, Alexandra said images of armed right-wingers taking on the left could turn the public against the NRA’s political project of loosening gun restrictions.
Why do you think the NRA turned to leftists as a new enemy? What might it gain from that? And crucially, what might it risk?
Donald: Without a Democrat in the White house they can’t throw the “take away your guns” line of argument out there any longer. They need a new boogieman.
Jason: I am not sure that the NRA risks much by slight changes to their narratives. The issue of gun control is very polarized across the parties, but I would say that has probably more to due with activism by gun-control groups to move the Democratic party politicians firmly in their direction.
Alexandra: The strategy of mobilizing through fear and threat requires an enemy. The “violent left” is a tried and true enemy.
However, the NRA may be missing the forest for the trees. A focus on social violence *may* keep its core supporters, white Republicans, in check. But experiments that I have run suggest that exposure to stories about social violence increases support for gun control among the general public.
Alex: What do you think all this means for gun owners’ support of Trump and Republicans? Do you think that ongoing protest or festering racial resentment could fray that crucial political alliance, or strengthen it?
Jason: I would suggest that guns are really an issue for people we would consider to already be hardcore Trump supporters. It’s hard to imagine their views on gun control changing with more incidents like we have seen recently.
Donald: Yes, this hardens support for Trump, but it could be harmful for other Republicans, just like Trump is.
Alex: What about folks in the middle? Feel free to interrogate the premise that there even ARE folks in the middle when it comes to racial resentment and pro-gun policies.
Alexandra: The NRA is in a tough spot. It faces a predicament similar to the GOP. It needs to bring in women and minorities. Its base is shrinking. The gun-owning population is declining but guns are concentrated in fewer hands.
Donald: There are plenty of folks in the middle, though it’s tough for them. They are more likely to turn away from government and public life than they are to mobilize around these issues.
Alexandra: The NRA needs to pivot to some place NOT the extreme right in order to expand market share, but their key constituency is fed a constant diet of extreme rhetoric and they thrive on it.
Jason: I guess the key question is: do marginal Democratic elected officials still fear NRA voter-mobilization efforts?
Donald: Both marginal Dems and Reps still have to fear a mobilized NRA and primary opponents.
Alexandra: Yes, I think Democrats in competitive seats should be afraid that NRA voters will come out.
Jason: Right. And would we agree that very little that Trump does will affect that, one way or another?
Alex: Turning from Trump and the NRA to the Democrats: we did a lot of reporting in 2016 that showed Democrats thought Hillary’s clear positions in favor of gun control would mobilize the Obama coalition again. That turned out to be wrong!
Donald: Consistently, gun opponents do not mobilize as well as gun-rights supporters in any form of political participation.
Alexandra: Gun control is not an issue that inspires Democratic mobilization. It is not an identity issue for the left, the way reproductive rights or gay rights are. The left has not been able to frame guns in term of rights in a way that can mobilize. For the right, especially whites, gun rights are their “civil rights.” My data show that 88% of whites rank gun rights as one of their three most cherished rights. 50% say voting rights are equally important.
Jason: That actually makes me sad.
Alexandra: It scares me.
Alex: Whereas “not being shot” isn’t really part of people’s identity.
Alexandra: Exactly. We have not been able to articulate a right from violence as something that the state must guarantee.
Jason: I guess “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” is less important than the 2nd amendment.
Alex: Say establishment republicans like McConnell and Ryan fail to deliver policies like concealed reciprocity, while Trump continues to foment chaos within the party. Where might that leave a gun owner who had previously been a reliable Republican voter?
Alexandra: There are some tough GOP primaries down the road.
Jason: I suppose it’s possible that single-issue gun access voters might be demobilized in 2018 if Trump focuses on the failure to pass new policy … but I just don’t think that will overcome other mobilizing and demobilizing factors.
Alexandra: Is the NRA going to follow Bannon and attack the establishment?
Jason: I haven’t seen any evidence that incumbent Republicans feel any pressure to moderate on guns in general elections. I find it hard to believe they will allow much daylight between themselves and any right primary challengers on guns.
Donald: This is where Democrats have some opportunity. One place to start is with taking a stand on open carry at legal protests. Open carry is a recent phenomenon for the NRA and there are plenty of gun owners that think the NRA goes too far [in supporting open carry]. If the Dems want those voters they have to find ways to acknowledge their fears about gun control while also appealing to their level judgement about open displays of weapons during public demonstrations.
Alex: Donald, in the introduction to the gun politics issue of Social Science Quarterly, you wrote that you put the volume together out of a hope that “public deliberations about gun matters will be informed by evidence-based social science.”
For all of you: Is it your feeling that those public deliberations have NOT been informed by evidence-based social science in the past? Why or why not? What obstacles stand in the way of a more evidence-based discourse around guns?
Jason: That’s an existential question if I ever heard one.
Alexandra: There is substantial asymmetry on this. The left has marshaled public health data about deaths and injuries. But those can’t match the power of identity narratives.
Jason: I think Alexandra has nailed it. Identity trumps “evidence” in any political argument.
Alex: Gun-rights supporters might counter that the public health value of certain gun-control measures, especially assault-weapon bans, aren’t always backed up by sound evidence. Democrats make a show of supporting assault weapon bans, even though very few people are killed with such guns, and mass shootings can be carried out with weapons not covered by such laws. The Virginia Tech shooting was carried out with pistols, after all.
Alexandra: It is a very tough road to navigate. The public health approach leads to conclusions that there should be registration and heavy regulation of access to guns like in Europe. But nobody can be elected in the U.S. on such a platform. So you have to dilute the message and then it becomes inconsistent.
Donald: As with climate change, the left has marshaled evidence, and the right has people like John Lott that purport to bring evidence to the table. However, most of the debate is centered in identity and emotional response, on both sides. That can’t be ignored, but we can do more to understand why people believe what they believe. But I think just attempting to move the discussion to a broader sense of what guns and gun ownership means in society can move us away from a simple “for or against” frame. If the debate is stuck there, not much will change.
Alex: You’ve got your work cut out for you! Thank you all for participating.