Now that the fiscal cliff fight is over, (for a spell) now that the inauguration is almost upon us, we’re finally ready to have the national conversation about guns (maybe, unless fighting over Chuck Hagel carries us all the way to the next debt ceiling climax). Before it gets going, though, I want to think through a surprising something that’s bothered me about the last month of national gun policy discussions. Believe it or not, this isn’t a post about the NRA or the substance of gun policy. It’s about how a democracy works—how it has to work, if it’s worth having at all.
It’s relatively obvious that the NRA did itself no favors with its bizarre press conference after the Newtown shooting. The event stood in stark contrast to their reputation. After this shooting, like nearly every other shooting before it, the received wisdom has been that the NRA is too strong and politically savvy to allow substantive changes in American gun policy.
Or, rather, that was the received wisdom, because the chaotic presser showed none of the clinical, calculating power the NRA’s reputed to possess. This wasn’t a damage control of nefarious Beltway puppeteers. It was an outburst of “tone-deaf” nonsense from an organization too inflexible to know when it’s in serious trouble.
Arming police in every one of America’s 98,817 public schools? Saving money on that ~$3.3 billion proposal by asking for armed volunteers to guard the schools? Are we screening them for mental illness? Are we providing ongoing monitoring? Why wouldn’t we insist on similar procedures for ordinary citizens who’d like to buy assault rifles, handguns, etc? How can we be sure that these volunteers are “good guys with a gun?”
And on and on. NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre called for the federal government to maintain “an active list of the mentally ill,” who he later referred to as “lunatics.” He charged the media with various “moral failings,” which mostly consisted of airing violent films, music videos, and other such immoral dreck.
Perhaps some isolated elements of the NRA’s response are viable, politically serious responses to an epidemic of mass shootings. Maybe.
BUT: Taken as a whole, the proposals were thorough evidence of how strange and out of step the organization is. I still think this is about right:
The NRA has a Hobbes problem. It wants to apply the logic of human behavior in the state of nature to humans in civil society.
— Conor P. Williams (@ConorPWilliams) December 22, 2012
In “a war of all against all,” the only plausible answer to violence is more violence, but this is an absurd response in civil society—especially when we’re talking about decentralizing the threat of violence. Absurd. Exceptionally absurd.
But the left still talks as if the NRA were a secret, all-powerful shaman living in the Capitol’s eaves. After that press conference, though, surely it was clear that they’re better despised than feared. Really? We’ve been afraid of these guys?
Yes. Any opponent, no matter how serious, looks better with hype. Strip that away, however, and you’ll have some idea of how much of their strength is real and how much is only apparent. This is all they are. This is all that they ever were.
Again, though, this isn’t a post about how terrible the NRA has gotten. It’s a post about democracy and taking responsibility.
American populists have always blamed insidious nemeses for distorting our otherwise good and honest democracy. Andrew Jackson called it the “moneyed interest.” Teddy Roosevelt called out “the malefactors of great wealth.” Every democratic populist has his or her (economic, racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, institutional, etc) bugbear. These shadowy characters are simultaneously enemy and excise. They offer a target, but they also explain the persistence of egregious evils. Were it not for the NRA, or the war profiteers, etc, these evils would have been prevented. The people wouldn’t have stood for it. Implicitly, so the argument goes, the people won’t stand for it now that the sham has been revealed.
First: in this case, at least, this argument is true. The NRA is a large organization with even larger political influence. They bear some guilt for resisting policies that could prevent some mass shootings. This is real.
But money is not the only political force in a democratic community—or at least, it needn’t be. That’s why political bogeymen excuse, as well as explain, our failings. If we pin Newtown and the rest of this year’s mass shootings on the NRA, we can avoid facing our own responsibility. We can blame the gun lobby for drowning out the voices of lonely lawmakers begging for stricter gun control.
Otherwise, you see, we’d have to admit that we’ve been too distracted by other things to insist on a sensible debate on gun policy. We’d have to admit that we’ve been floating along, casual political spectators who might have done otherwise—but didn’t. We’d have to admit that we are the ones who could have made a difference, instead of putting our children at risk.
True or not, the American national conceit consists in recognizing ourselves in our laws. Even the cynics decry our “broken” politics in reference to this ideal. The nemeses distorting our politics are polluting a model that is otherwise good and true and recognizable. To recognize the supposed distortion is to imply that a purer, cleaner, fairer politics would otherwise surge forth.
Self-government comes with freedom and choice—but it also implicates us in guilt. This need not trouble us most of the time; we accept a certain degree of guilt as the cost of living free. We could prevent more crimes and protect our innocence, but at some point this unduly infringes upon liberty. How much is too much? That’s the meat of our politics…but no one should shrink from an argument simply because of the presence of a well-funded opposition, nor should they spend all of their rhetorical energies pointing out the material imbalance in the debate. Yes, the NRA has a legacy of political manipulation. Yes, well-spent money beats the better argument more often than it should. But none of this makes them magically invulnerable.
I suspect that the partial truth of our indictment of the NRA obscures a general American unease about our ambivalence on gun policy. As conniving and destructive as the gun lobby has been, many of us recognize that we generally want “something” done about it, but aren’t really sure what. We know that things aren’t working as they stand, but we don’t know what to do next.
So we grouse about the NRA-as-political-interference instead of arguing about the substance of their positions. We notice that there’s a confirmation fight brewing. We complain about the carried interest loophole or the amount of foreign aid or other less painful things. We grouse some more about the NRA. We grumble (again) that nothing’s happening on gun control because the gun lobby controls Washington.
And that’s the thing—so long as that’s the pattern of our thinking, the NRA probably will.
 I’m consciously avoiding referring to demagoguery, since I suspect that this would drag my argument into much wider turf than is currently necessary. For the time being, American populism is the matter to be theorized. The post may suggest a more general theory of popular rhetoric, but that would be a much bigger claim that I don’t need for this post.
 Perhaps it bears noting that conservatives run the same sort of arguments. Listen to ten minutes of Hannity and you’ll hear a veritable army of bogeymen tempting Americans to socialism or environmentalism, etc. Perhaps when gas prices go up, some conservatives take comfort in blaming Greenpeace. See footnote 1, though. I’m not convinced that conservative populism is susceptible to this dynamic in precisely the same way.
Note: This post is not part of our League Symposium on Guns In America, but you really should take a look at the many thoughtful posts that were included. To see a list, click here.