How the NRA Plays the Gun Game

A candlelight vigil following the Sandy Hook massacre.

Whenever our country suffers a particularly traumatic episode of gun violence, the simmering debate on gun control flares anew, and the National Rifle Association is invariably drawn into the fray as the leading agent of gun rights advocates.

This outsize political role is a far cry from the association’s humble roots as an organization focused on teaching the safe and effective use of firearms. In this capacity, the NRA was a national asset, enhancing both public safety and the sportsman’s experience through education.

But 144 years later, what began as a sportsmen’s club is no longer so benign. The NRA has come into its own as one of America’s most formidable, well-funded, and influential lobbies, and this immense power is not wielded to the benefit of the American people.

The problem is not the NRA’s rise to lobbying hegemony, nor its entry into the gun control debate, nor even the side it champions in that debate. The problem is that, to the NRA, the entire debate is a game, and today’s NRA seems to know only one purpose: winning the game. It pursues this goal with a visceral fervor, employing a reckless playbook that debases the national discourse through fearmongering and misinformation, and in its quest to win public opinion, the NRA routinely characterizes the government as tyrannical, gun control advocates as enemies of freedom, and gun violence statistics as distracting props.

Chief among its tactics has been a campaign to paint gun control as the tip of a vast conspiratorial iceberg that threatens the entire Constitutional order; consider that in 1995, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre penned a telling memo in which he warned of “jack-booted government thugs” looking to “break down our doors.” And although that memo was later retracted following a public backlash against its likening of ATF law enforcement agents to Nazi storm troopers, it is a paragon of the deliberately ridiculous, theatrically hyperbolic outlook that prevails in today’s NRA.

Such rhetoric thoughtlessly bypasses reality, and demonstrates the extent to which this important policy debate has become not about the delicate balance of curbing gun violence and protecting civil liberties, but about vindicating dogmatic arguments that lack nuance and reason. It’s the unfortunate product of the NRA’s all-consuming instinct to win the game.

To many who did not see it before, the dark implication of this instinct was made clear with a certain collective incredulity in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Following the shooting, Mr. LaPierre held a press conference at which he declared—infamously, and seemingly reflexively—that, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

This quote epitomizes, perhaps more so than any other, the fanatical, intransigent blindness of the “new NRA.” It is true that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun, but why does the bad guy need to have a gun in the first place? We don’t need to live in a country where dangerous people can buy firearms, and of that point, Mr. LaPierre seems incapable of consideration. At his NRA there is no appetite for thinking, no room for compromise, and thus no possibility of solutions. If there is any genuine will to prevent gun violence, it is overpowered by the impulsive drive to defend guns, even in the most indefensible of situations.

I’m not against the NRA, I’m not against gun ownership, and I’m certainly not against the Second Amendment. The NRA does not kill students or shoot members of congress, and those who suggest that it does are guilty of the same sin perpetrated by Mr. LaPierre when he declares that President Obama is on a mission to subjugate the American people. Make no mistake: to this day, the NRA continues to play a number of beneficial roles in society, from teaching youths about hunting to training law enforcement officers, and it remains a leader in teaching Americans about gun safety. But the bulk of its brawn—clearly, sadly—is applied elsewhere.

It’s never too late to change this reality. The NRA can reclaim its stature as a national asset by quitting the game and showing that the values on which it was founded stand today. The NRA should renew its focus on teaching Americans about safe gun ownership, knowledge that is particularly critical in a country as well armed as ours. It should help strengthen communities by preaching responsibility rather than rashness, and should inspire its members by appealing to their sense of reason rather than their sense of fear. Finally, the NRA should help make gun ownership safer for all Americans, by working to ensure that those who should not have access to guns do not have access to guns.

Let’s work together to create a society where people can live without fear of gun violence, and where gun ownership is a rightful privilege extended in the fullest to anyone ready for that great responsibility. The sooner these goals are realized, the more lives will be saved.

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