Do NRA members want more gun control or do they fear President Obama will try to ban gun sales? Yes.
Those are the seemingly contradictory findings from a new poll paid for by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns and conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. The poll is drawing attention because it found NRA member support for some modest expansions of gun control. Over two-thirds of the 400 NRA members surveyed said they support requiring criminal background checks of all buyers at gun shows, while 82% are in favor of blocking gun purchases by anyone on the U.S. terrorist watch list. This raises the question: What could possibly stop gun control legislation that isn’t even opposed by NRA members?
The answer: The NRA, and its Gun Crusaders.
What this and every other poll can’t uncover is the depth of passion for and against gun control. Yes, many NRA members tepidly support some modest forms of gun control, especially those that appeal to members’ concerns about preventing felons and terrorists from purchasing guns. In Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, I argue that only the most committed NRA members, the “Gun Crusaders,” oppose gun control as vehemently as does the organization itself. For many reasons, though, the NRA’s uncompromising stance doesn’t lead the rest of its members to send back their black and gold shooter’s caps.
NRA members’ sense of fear is the foremost reason for their nearly unwavering commitment. When asked if they think Obama “will attempt to ban the sales of guns in the United States” during his presidency, 79% of NRA members responded “definitely” or “probably.” Putting aside the likelihood of Obama actually pursuing such an agenda, the poll results hint to why the gun debate has been so lopsided. The NRA can tap into its members’ fears of losing their “gun rights” because the NRA so effectively frames gun rights as the foundation of all individual rights and freedoms (they are America’s 1st Freedom, according to the title of the NRA’s political magazine). If the government takes away your gun rights—and they’re going to try, the NRA claims—all others are sure to follow. These ideas resonate with a core group of committed NRA members ready to pounce on a moment’s notice, but they also appeal to less dedicated members.
There are passionate supporters on the gun control side, too, but they are outnumbered no less than 10 to 1. They’re also outspent and out-lobbied. They and many Americans, including NRA members, might have their emotions temporarily stirred by another senseless act of gun violence. What few will do, however, is sustain their fight for gun control week after week and year after year. The NRA and its Gun Crusaders will. If and when legislation to regulate gun show sales appears headed for a vote, the NRA will mobilize its supporters—led by the nearly 20% who told Luntz’s pollsters they opposed gun show purchase background checks. With four million members, that translates into hundreds of thousands of calls to elected officials and donations to their cause. The NRA will also use slippery-slope arguments (Today? Background checks. Tomorrow? Registration and confiscation!) to convince many of its less committed members to discard their support for gun control.
Recent history suggests their efforts will work. Why? Because the NRA and its members fear losing much more than their guns. They fear losing their freedoms. Those fears will trump any shallow support for gun control legislation, and will help kill any bills that the NRA deems anti-gun rights.