America's gun sickness goes far deeper than NRA donations
Gun extremism in the US is powered not by capitalism, but by Christian fascism.
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“I will never be bought by the NRA,” Max Steiner, a Democratic candidate for Congress, declared on twitter. “The NRA buys off Congress. No action on guns…” says former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, “Money in politics is the root of our dysfunction.”
It’s a common and intuitive argument. The National Rifle Association gives money to politicians. Those politicians then block common sense gun policy. Why else would Republicans refuse to regulate semi-automatic weapons to protect children such as those killed at Uvalde in the recent horrific mass shooting? Why would the GOP block background checks for gun purchases supported by 84 percent of voters? Payoffs and a form of legal bribery seem like the only plausible answer.
The plausible answer in this case, though, is wrong. The NRA’s persuasive power doesn’t come from money. It comes from the powerful link between guns and white Christian nationalist conservative identity cultivated in right-wing communities and by right-wing media. If the NRA were prevented from donating a single dime, it would barely change the contours of the gun debate. Pro-gun extremism in the US is powered not by capitalism, but by fascism.
If the NRA’s influence rested on its donations, the NRA would be in trouble, because the NRA doesn’t actually contribute that much money to politicians. The Virginia Public Access Project found that the NRA had donated less than a million dollars to politicians in the state between 1996 and 2019. In the same period, the utility Dominion Energy donated $11 million while tobacco company Altria spent $6 million.
The NRA’s modest contributions also tend to be spread over a large number of races. The average contribution to a House race in 2012, according to Paul Waldman at ThinkProgress, was $2,500 for both primary and general elections. Most of these races at the time could cost a million dollars; the NRA donations were insignificant. And that’s even before you consider that the NRA gives money to candidates in many deep red seats, where the Republican victory is a foregone conclusion.
Some argue that the NRA’s real power is in independent expenditures rather than in direct contributions to lawmakers. It spent $54 million in 2016 on congressional and presidential races. That sounds like a lot. But it dwindles into insignificance compared to the $2 billion spent by Wall Street in donations.
Overall, the 2016 election cost about $7 billion. That means that NRA’s paltry millions accounted for just .77% of election spending. It’s difficult to imagine that that swayed election outcomes. Which is why Waldman concluded “The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections.” [italics in the original]
If NRA money isn’t pushing Republicans towards gun-nuttery, then what is? In part, GOP lawmakers may overestimate the influence of the gun lobby. Virginia Republicans are eager to get an A rating from the NRA because they fear primary challenges without it, even though, again, Waldman found little correlation between NRA endorsements and election outcomes.
Republicans don’t just tout NRA ratings though. They take pictures of themselves and their families, including their children, with guns. They put guns in their political ads. They plaster the slogan “Jesus. Guns. Babies” on the side of their vans. They (ludicrously) argue that AR-15s are a vital necessity for shooting raccoons on farms.
Guns have become a central marker of Republican identity. GOP politicians signal that they are like their voters, or on the side of their voters, by embracing firearms. Touting a gun in your campaign imagery is the equivalent of wearing a tie to a job interview. It’s the way you tell your interlocutors that you belong in the room.
Of course, a tie, whatever its other failings, is not a deadly weapon that is frequently used to murder children. If 53 people were killed by ties every day, people would, you’d hope, stop wearing ties.
Guns though, aren’t just a polite sign of belonging. They’re a central narrative of Republican selfhood — a symbol of persecution and heroic resistance.
That fantasy of resistance has various layers. Republicans tout guns as a vital protection against violent criminals, who are more or less explicitly figured as Black and poor. Stand your ground laws codify this narrative, allowing vigilante shootings if someone (especially a white someone) feels threatened. They predictably exacerbate racial disparities, since juries are more likely to see Black people as threatening and to give white shooters the benefit of the doubt.
A study found that in Florida, Black adolescents 15-19 were twice as likely to be killed by gun violence as white adolescents before stand your ground laws were passed; afterwards they were three times as likely to be killed. Studies have also found a strong correlation between racist attitudes and gun ownership.
The gun mythos that imagines white conservatives as waging a lonely battle against crime also imagines those same conservatives as waging a lonely battle against the government. Charlton Heston declared at the NRA convention in 2000 that Al Gore would have to pry his gun from his “cold, dead hands.” After the Uvalde shooting, Florida state Representative Randy Fine, addressing President Joe Biden, announced “try to take our guns and you’ll learn why the Second Amendment was written in the first place.”
The Second Amendment was not in fact passed in order to enable presidential assassination. But the GOP is enamored of this revisionist history, in which the founders foresaw federal tyranny, and handed guns to brave patriots so they could shoot their way to freedom.
The right gun myth is a powerful reverse colonial fantasy. David Higgins in his book Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood, chronicles the popularity of reverse colonial narratives over the last 130 odd years. War of the Worlds is the classic example; H.G. Wells imagined Martians invading England, just as England had invaded regions around the globe (Wells uses Tasmania as his specific example.) Like any colonial invaders, the Martians commit genocide, enslave the local population, rampage, murder, and destroy.
You might think that putting yourself in the position of the invaded would cause you to sympathize with colonized people. But Higgins points out that this is not necessarily the case. Reverse colonization narratives don’t necessarily increase sympathy for the marginalized. Often they simply allow the powerful to frame themselves as victims.
Hitler saw himself as fighting for righteousness against a powerful Jewish genocidal conspiracy. Birth of a Nation imagines brave neo-Confederates staving off an invasion of corrupt Northerners and Black officials. Wealthy white male actors like Charlton Heston, and well-off white male state political leaders like Randy Fine fantasize that they’re revolutionaries, persecuted by a tyrannical government that wants to leave them defenseless.
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Reverse colonial narratives, victimization fantasies, and paranoia are a powerful engine of reaction and fascism. In the face of an existential threat, any violence seems necessary and justified. That includes threatening the president. And it includes the death of children.
A recent poll showed that 44 percent of Republicans think the US needs to live with mass shootings. That seems terrifyingly callous; how can anyone argue that we should just allow children to be shot to death in their schools? But many Republicans believe their guns are the only things protecting them from the Martians. A few dead children, or a lot of dead children, is a small price to pay when you’re the hero of a pulp fantasy, bravely preserving the race.
Republican gun obsession would be a lot easier to deal with if it were motivated by money. If the gun industry was buying votes, Michael Bloomberg could just outbid them. But for Republicans, guns are at the center of a story in which they are brave persecuted martyrs. They want to imagine themselves as the protagonists of Death Wish or Red Dawn. To them that’s worth more than any NRA check, or any number of dead bodies.