The NRA is not only a constituent part of the Republican Party. It is in some ways a microcosm of it. Its demographics: an aging, male, non-urban, racially anxious, white base. Its policy prescriptions: outlier positions unsupported by science. Its politics: defensive and bitterly opposed to compromise.
Like the GOP, which dominates state governments and has reached peak numbers in Congress, the National Rifle Association appears to be at the height of its considerable powers. It is well funded, professionally staffed and deeply entrenched in U.S. politics, having fully hitched a major political party to its single cause.
NRA ideology is popular, often intuitive and packaged in easily digested talking points and aphorisms — “good guy with a gun,” “if guns are outlawed ...” — that are widely repeated by millions of gun enthusiasts.
The group has been racking up victories in conservative states that have adopted wholesale the movement creed that guns on campus, in bars, at church, in cars — guns everywhere — constitutes both a rational public policy and an extension of liberty.
Still, it’s more than likely that, for the NRA, it’s downhill from here. In fact, some of the organization’s strengths may prove to be its undoing.
Having abandoned even a pretense of bipartisanship, the NRA benefits from a conservative network of allies, including the religious right. But it has completely forfeited influence with Democrats, who have concluded that they have nothing to lose in becoming a party fully devoted to gun regulation. With the GOP publicly unraveling, congressional Democrats appear poised to grow stronger. That’s not good for the NRA.
Similarly, extremism has been profitable for the NRA. But as the GOP is learning, there is no easy route back from the fringe.
First, the NRA’s political power and fundraising depend on maintaining paranoia at a screaming pitch.
Second, the NRA has its own tea party problem. Gun groups that are even more extreme are ever eager to label the NRA a sellout — too willing to appease liberals or compromise freedom or indulge the girly-man politics of the mainstream.
When Open Carry Texas, a band of gun extremists, first began terrifying patrons and workers in Texas restaurants, the NRA mumbled disapproval. Under pressure from its fringier rivals, the NRA quickly reversed itself.
Extremism, of course, is a tricky game. If you don’t convert the country to your cause, you risk being marginalized. That’s already happening to the NRA in liberal states. The trend may expand.
Like open carry, NRA ideology doesn’t hold up well in real life. “Good guys with guns” too often turn out to be bad guys who kill. And what are the chances that a very stupid, very reckless “good guy” will eventually shoot an innocent person while trying to be a hero? I’d guess the chances are quite high. Meanwhile, social media readily spreads news stories of foolish gun owners leaving senseless destruction in their wake.
Demographic decline also beckons. As Adam Winkler explained in The Washington Post, the growing parts of the population — Hispanics and Asians — generally support gun regulation, as do blacks. The NRA’s old, white base is in steady decline as both a portion of the population and electorate.
It’s true that the NRA retains cultural resonance as well as political power. Writing in the Economist, Will Wilkinson noted that the group is no outlier in American culture. “It is,” said Wilkinson (no relation), “an organic symptom of a widespread and deep-seated aspect of the American character.”
Wilkinson is correct, of course. Perhaps Americans will gradually accede to the radical expansion of gun-movement ideology — even to the sight of strange men walking grocery aisles with loaded weapons of war on their backs, muzzles dipping menacingly as they reach for the milk. Surely the tribalism and apocalyptic fetishism promoted by the NRA are secure in the GOP of Donald Trump.
But the aggressive crouch that defines the gun movement is a defensive one. Like Trump’s troops, the movement perceives itself perpetually under siege. In places such as California and Hawaii, which continue to strengthen gun regulation, it pretty much is. (Question: What are the demographics of those two states like? Answer: The future.)
Demography may be the NRA’s most obvious source of insecurity. But the American body count may also prove unsustainable. Guns are used in 100,000 shootings annually, causing more than 30,000 deaths. That’s a staggering price to pay for policies specifically designed to facilitate gun possession, willy-nilly.
On some level, those most enamored of firearms must sense that their victories, including a highly qualified 5-4 Supreme Court ruling written by a Supreme Court justice who is now deceased, are fragile. Technology, politics, demography and reason itself will eventually gang up to defeat a movement that demands guns for everyone, anywhere, all the time, for any reason, regardless of the consequences and in defiance of every civilized norm the world over.
In other words, maybe the NRA isn’t crazy to be paranoid.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.