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Right-wing militia members carried combat weapons at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville on August 12. [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

National Rifle Association

Here’s Why the NRA’s Plan to Make People Fear the ‘Violent Left’ May Backfire

One researcher says she has not yet seen a case in which stories about violence produce support for gun rights.

With his latest round of morning tweets, Donald Trump continued his days-long streak of unrepentant comments about Charlottesville. He has continued to claim that the “alt left,” in his words, shared blame for  bloodshed that left one woman dead and dozens injured, an assertion that is contradicted by extensive video evidence that shows white nationalists repeatedly attacking counter protesters.

This framing of the left as a violent force — and a more pressing threat than the far right — was trotted out by the National Rifle Association soon after Trump’s inauguration. The gun group has since pushed that narrative hard in a slew of videos, including spokeswoman Dana Loesch’s infamous “Clenched Fist of Truth” ad demonizing the Women’s March. With no Clinton or Obama in power to rail against, the NRA appears to have determined that leftist protesters pose the greatest threat to gun-owners, and indeed all Americans.

The gun group and the president have both sought to use fear to their political advantage. For the NRA, at least, this approach could backfire in a big way, political scientist Alexandra Filindra says. Filindra has run a slew of experiments on how people’s feelings about race, crime, and violence influence their positions on gun laws. In a study she published last year, she found that racial resentment strongly influenced white people to oppose gun control.

But, according to her latest research, escalating racial tensions don’t lead to retrenchment of hard-line attitudes against gun laws. Fear of social violence, Filindra says, can drown out worries about racial identity. In an as-yet unpublished experiment, she found that if white people are prompted with descriptions of violent protests or street brawls, they are more likely to support gun control.  

“Threat operates differently than identity,” she explains.

Crucially, Filindra’s experiment showed this to be the case regardless of who is portrayed as perpetrating social violence. She gave her subjects descriptions of hypothetical demonstrations by the Tea Party, KKK, NAACP, and Black Lives Matter. Whenever the description included violence, respondents increased support for gun control.

“I have not been able to produce one case where in comparison to a story about nonviolence, a neutral control, stories about violence produce support for gun rights,” she said.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 and early to mid-90’s era policies like assault weapon bans and the federal background check system were all instituted as the nation grappled with protests, race riots, and high levels of crime. Conversely, the expansion of concealed carry and the rolling back of other gun restrictions ramped up in the early 2000s, as social tensions subsided and crime fell to historic lows.

Of course, it’s possible that Trump and allies like the NRA aren’t actually trying to convince a broad swath of the public to support their position on escalating political tensions or guns so much as appeal to a hard-core base. “Among those who are very loyal to the NRA, or who have very high levels of racial resentment, this message could be appealing,” Filindra adds.