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The ideology of the NRA

Inteview: Spencer Kimball January 11, 2013

The NRA has evolved from a sporting association to the leading advocacy group for gun rights in the US. Scott Melzer, author of the book "Gun Crusaders: the NRA's Culture War," discusses the NRA's ideology with DW.

Antique gun collector Richard Kravarik poses with an antique hand gun during the East Coast Fine Arms Show in Stamford, Connecticut, January 5, 2013. The show is being held despite the mayor's plea that the event not be held so soon after last month's massacre at an elementary school in nearby Newtown.
Image: Reuters

DW: How did the National Rifle Association (NRA) reach a leadership position among organizations that represent gun owners and gun rights in the United States?

The organization has been around for 140 plus years. It has had different identities over those years. Since the 1960s and 70s when gun control really came on the radar in the United States after the political assassinations and other events, that's when the NRA began to change its identity from just kind of a hunter and sports shooters group into this politicized gun rights group. So essentially they've been around for ever, and they were the first organization that took a stance and they've just grown since.

Who are the members exactly of the NRA? Do we have any sense of the demographics of the members or what their political leanings are?

The NRA has never shared any information about their membership. From my own research, I would say that if you look at the membership, the more committed members - what I found - were also the most deeply conservative. They have a conservative political ideology that extended well beyond gun rights to many other issues, which isn't surprising, because it's been evident - and my research emphasizes - that the gun debate is very much intertwined with American politics. And the way the NRA argues that guns should be defended, it resonates with conservatives.

They argue that gun rights defend and protect all other individual rights and freedoms. And that fits with a conservative philosophy of government out of our lives, citizens shouldn't be dependent on government for protection via gun control or social services, instead they should rely on themselves for protection and for their incomes and so forth.

The most committed members I found were the most conservative, but even the less committed members still lean to the right. They were politically kind of center right I would say. I didn't encounter any liberals, when I was doing research on the NRA and interviewing NRA members. I attended some NRA annual meetings - they gather tens of thousands of people. It's overwhelmingly white and mostly men and mostly conservative. Those demographics mirror gun owner demographics as well in the United States.

Can we draw a distinction between the views of the members of the NRA and the views of the leadership of the organization?

Yes and no. The most committed members, their politics align pretty closely with the NRA leadership's position of no compromise on gun control. As I spoke with the slightly less committed members, we've seen survey research recently showing that NRA members support some of these forms of gun control - bans on high capacity magazines or tightening background checks - and the leadership doesn't. [It] doesn't surprise me that you'd find in survey research that some of these less committed members support some forms of gun control. When push comes to shove, they're not going to resign their memberships because the NRA takes a hard-line stance.

Dr. Scott Melzer, Associate Professor and Chair, Albion College
Melzer says the NRA's message has appeal beyond its membership baseImage: Bobby Lee

Does the NRA have any political or ideological appeal outside of its membership base?

I would argue yes. I didn't directly tap into that in my research, but the rhetoric they use is the kind of language that resonates broadly with conservatives and I would say in many cases beyond that, with Americans in general. This idea of pull yourself up by the boot straps, self-reliance - those kinds of ideas are deeply imbedded within American culture.

For the NRA to argue that the government should stay out of our lives - that appeals to Tea Party conservatives and many other conservatives who, in the most extreme, accuse President Obama of being a socialist. But even political moderates and I would even say some folks who lean to the left would oppose the expansion of social welfare under the guise of attacking individual rights, or individual freedoms, or individual egos.

What sort or relationship does the NRA have with the firearms manufacturing industry?

That relationship has expanded as well in the last 15 years. The gun industry has increased donations to the NRA, they work closely together in the legislative effort or in the effort to prevent legislation that would allow gun manufacturers to be sued. They have close ties. There are individuals from the gun industry who are on the NRA board of directors so the relationships are close.

If you look at the developments post-Newtown, the gun industry and the gun rights movement - particularly the NRA - their fates are intertwined. Post-Newtown we've seen a dramatic increase in the sales of firearms, particularly these assault weapons which may be under threat with a ban. And you've also seen, according to the NRA, their membership increase. So I think gun owners respond to threats and fears by buying more guns and joining the NRA and other gun rights groups when these things arise. In that sense, the gun industry and the NRA have a very similar fate.

Does the NRA represent values more than economic interests?

Yeah, it's an ideological-based group. The gun debate - it's a debate about symbolic politics. On one side you've got folks who argue that people are losing their lives because of these guns - (that) they're weapons of mass destruction essentially, children are losing their lives. But on the other side the NRA is saying the gun is a symbol of freedom. And more importantly, if you lose gun rights, you lose the ability to protect and defend all other rights. Gun owners have these expressions like my second amendment protects your First [Amendment, the right to freedom of speech].

Dr. Scott Melzer is a professor of anthropology and sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan. In addition to his work on the National Rifle Association, Dr. Melzer also researches gender and social psychology, with particular interest in intimate violence, men & masculinities, and social movements.