"Democrats say we have guns in America because of 'corruption,'" former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared on Twitter on Sept. 12. "No, we have guns because it's our God-given right enshrined in the Constitution."
The second part of that tweet is silly; God didn't give people the right to own AR-15s any more than a divine entity gave Americans the right to own automobiles without seat belts. The first part of Sanders’ tweet, though, is mostly accurate. The National Rifle Association's money doesn't corrupt Republican legislators. Instead, Republicans oppose gun control because conservative political identity is today inseparable from guns. Identity is a deeper motivator than money, and, for those who want to end gun violence, a more intransigent one.
Identity is a deeper motivator than money, and, for those who want to end gun violence, a more intransigent one.
The progressive argument for NRA corruption is seductive because it's so straightforward. No matter how many mass shootings we endure — including two in the same week just this August — Republicans in Congress steadfastly oppose even very popular gun control measures like expanded background checks. As former Think Progress reporter Igor Volsky has repeatedly pointed out, the NRA consistently contributes money to the Republican party and Republican congresspeople, who then turn around and support NRA positions. The conclusion is obvious; Republicans are listening to contributors, not to their voters. They block gun control legislation because they've effectively been bribed.
But if contributions are all that's at issue, then gun control advocates should be able to sway Republicans by simply outbidding their pro-gun rivals and offering their own campaign cash for lawmakers who come out in support of background checks. This money shouldn't be too hard to find. The CEOs of 145 companies, including Dick's Sporting Goods, Uber, Twitter and Reddit, just signed a letter demanding action on gun control. The gun industry obviously dislikes gun control, but lots of other capitalists see downsides to people with AR-15s going on murderous rampages in their business, or their community, or their kids' school.
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In fact, in 2014 Michael Bloomberg decided to try to end NRA influence by offering more money to Republican lawmakers to support gun control. It hasn't worked.
Analysis of NRA contributions buttresses the idea that money doesn't move politicians to change their positions. Volsky himself found that gun supporters often get only $1,000 or $2,000 a cycle from the NRA — a number that looks more like a token show of solidarity than an effort to sway votes. The Washington Post found that NRA contributions tended to be less than 0.5 percent of representatives' fundraising totals.
So if money isn't leading Republicans to stonewall gun control legislation, what is? The answer is straightforward: Gun ownership and Republican identity have become inseparable. The most passionate Republican voters see guns as a central part of who they are.
In fact, as The New York Times reported, exit poll surveys found that gun-owning households went to Trump by 63 percent to 31 percent; non-gun households went to Hillary Clinton 65 percent to 30 percent. That represents a stronger predictor than race, stronger then class, stronger than the rural/urban divide.
The NRA's money doesn't necessarily sway legislators. But its messaging expresses and solidifies conservative partisan fervor — and often racially fueled paranoia — around guns. For example, the NRA has often referenced black criminal superpredators. This culminated in a rabid 2015 anti-Obama ad in which NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre ranted about "third-world carnage" in the president's hometown of Chicago, suggesting the black president was soft on black "criminal gang-bangers" and was deliberately targeting upstanding white gun owners.
Similarly, the NRA has engaged in hyperbolic anti-immigrant rhetoric, suggesting that American citizens need guns to protect themselves against the evil non-white criminals streaming across the border. "[T]errorized residents throw their deadbolts, draw their blinds and pray not to have their homes invaded or their kids kidnapped," LaPierre declared in 2010 in support of a draconian Arizona anti-immigrant law. (Needless to say, immigrants are not in fact more likely to commit crimes than citizens are.)
Gun rights have also taken on a near-religious importance, as have Republican responses to gun control initiatives. Meghan McCain, a conservative co-host on "The View," responded to calls for gun control earlier in September by stating: "I'm not living without guns, it's that simple." In response to former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke's aggressive call for mandatory gun buybacks of AR-15 assault weapons during the last Democratic debate, Texas state legislator Briscoe Cain responded, "My AR is ready for you" — a not very veiled violent threat.
Guns have also become imbued with a religious meaning for evangelical Christians especially — a key Trump bloc. As researchers Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry and Landon Schnabel explained following another shooting in Odessa, Texas, earlier in August, white evangelicals tend to see gun violence as a sign of growing American godlessness and corruption. Gun ownership is a way to protect themselves and their families from this threat.
Pro-gun paranoia reached a peak under Barack Obama, a black president who embodied white Republican fears about losing their standing in and control of America. In his 2017 book “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump,” David Neiwert chronicles the rising pro-gun sentiment that characterized that era. As Republican Party organizer Leonard Junker asserted, "I truly believe that they want to disarm us." The “they,” of course, being liberals.
Gun manufacturers and sellers often benefit from the gun culture's excesses, as they did after Obama's election, when fears about Obama's supposed anti-gun policy lead to a run on guns, ammunition and gunpowder. (Such fears proved to be unfounded.) But gun culture isn't just driven by money. It's driven by a complex mix of reactionary fantasies, racism and insecurity.
This distinction is important, because it suggests what gun control solutions won't work, and which ones might. Tightening campaign finance regulations or getting big money out of politics, as Elizabeth Warren has promised, is not likely to reduce pro-gun sentiment among Republicans. The NRA's ongoing financial difficulties aren't likely to affect Republican votes much either. On the other hand, fighting voter suppression and enfranchising poor and minority voters who lean Democratic, and don't base their identities on guns, could change the playing field significantly.
Most of all, we need to recognize that on guns, the two parties are diametrically opposed. Many Republican politicians (and voters) see any kind of gun control — whether background checks or a ban on assault rifles — as an existential threat. If Democrats want gun control, they need to win elections. Republicans aren't going to compromise.