President Donald Trump featured front and center at the annual National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Dallas, Texas, exchanging praise and support with the organization's leaders. That helps to explain the continuing clout of the self-defense rights organization. But the NRA's close link to Trump also reveals its weakness in these hyper-partisan times, when Teams Red and Blue seem compelled to pick opposing sides on almost every issue.
"There's never been a worse time to be a terrorist than with Donald Trump as president," gushed Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist and political strategist for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. "But you know what? There's never been a better time to be a law-abiding, gun-carrying, flag-waving, god-fearing, freedom-loving American patriot," he added, tacking on an endorsement for a second term for the president.
"Your Second Amendment rights are under siege," Trump told the supportive crowd just moments later, "but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I am your president."
It was a mutual love-fest between the president and the leading U.S. organization supporting self-defense rights and the legal protections for those rights embodied in the Second Amendment. But such a partisan partnership runs the serious risk of linking the security of the NRA's goals to the fate of the politician it has chosen to back—and implicitly gives that politician and his party a pass on their own threats to self-defense rights.
"There was the Republican embrace of the so-called Fix NICS Act," Declan McCullagh pointed out last week in Reason, "despite Gun Owners of America pointing out that the federal database in question 'contains the names of 257,000 law-abiding veterans who have lost their constitutional rights.'"
Then there was the administrative ban on bump stocks announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions' at President Trump's urging. The president escaped NRA criticism not only on the policy, but on its implementation by the sort of administrative fiat Trump criticized when it was wielded by his predecessor.
Picking tribes over principles can blind you to your allies' flaws. It can also turn the liberties you support into totems of tribal identity, targeted for destruction by the opposing tribe.
"[W]e should ban possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, we should buy back such weapons from all who choose to abide by the law, and we should criminally prosecute any who choose to defy it by keeping their weapons," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) wrote in a USA Today op-ed published the day before Trump addressed the NRA gathering. Seriously? Does Swalwell really propose to double-down on the failures of Prohibition by throwing law enforcement officers at millions of defiant Americans who, by definition, have the means to resist?
"Five thousand people to every one officer of the law," an FBI agent comments in Paramount's powerful Waco docudrama miniseries. "You know how we keep order with those odds? Because they believe we are more powerful than we are." If implemented, Swalwell's ban would quickly reveal the federal government's limitations and breed chaos.
Gun-phobic politicians have traditionally had to consider the likelihood that the most draconian restrictions would scoop up some percentage of their own supporters who happen to differ with them on the issue. But, assuming Swalwell isn't a complete idiot (admittedly, a bit of a leap with elected officials), his proposal makes more sense in an environment in which guns are less likely to cut across partisan divides than to define them. If firearms and the NRA are perceived as purely Republican, why not weaponize the law to antagonize the "enemy," even if enforcement is impossible?
The NRA makes the opposition's job easier with its own selective defense of self-defense rights. The organization chimed in only belatedly and weakly to the killing of Philando Castile by a police officer who seemed to fly into a panic despite the calm efforts of the concealed-carry permit holder to defuse the situation. Castile was black, fueling accusations that the organization is slow to defend minorities (although the group certainly has stood up for black gun owners in the past). He also enjoyed marijuana, leading to charges that the organization is uncomfortable with cannabis users in a country that is moving away from prohibitions on the substance.
More likely, the NRA's long alliance with police and law-enforcement organizations made it hesitant to intervene, even when the cop who killed Castile was so obviously in the wrong. "When I started writing about the massive increase in the use of SWAT teams, no-knock warrants and 'dynamic entry' police raids back in the early 2000s, I was at first surprised at how quiet the NRA was about the issue," former Reasoner Radley Balko wrote last year.
But it's the soles of cop boots that people are most likely to be seeing up close and personal whenever they're being stomped by agents of the state. If you won't criticize police excesses, when will you step in?
There are alternatives to the National Rifle Association for people seeking more consistent advocacy of self-defense rights and with less partisan baggage. Gun Owners of America bills itself as the "no compromise" gun lobby and has a history of slamming Republicans as well as Democrats. The Second Amendment Foundation saw the landmark Heller case through a successful decision in the Supreme Court—despite early opposition from the NRA. The Firearms Policy Coalition tries to appeal to younger gun owners. The National Association for Gun Rights leans more socially conservative than all the other organizations, potentially alienating anybody who doesn't see self-defense rights as intrinsically linked with hostility to abortion and gay marriage.
But none of these groups have the prominence or the clout of the NRA and its millions of members. When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo leaned on banks and insurance companies to break their ties with advocates of self-defense rights or else, he warned them about having dealings with "the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations." Whatever their virtues or flaws, only the NRA was named, and the other groups were shoehorned in as being "similar" to that organization.
So, until somebody else can displace the NRA from its leading role, it remains the face of self-defense rights advocacy. And that face looks both erratic and very Republican—especially with controversial conservative firebrand Oliver North assuming the presidency—in its advocacy of an issue that requires consistency, and can only be weakened by a lock-step partisan affiliation.