After Gun Violence
Deliberation and Memory in an Age of Political Gridlock
After Gun Violence
Deliberation and Memory in an Age of Political Gridlock
“Written with passion, insight, and eloquence, After Gun Violence is a compelling exploration of a tragically American problem—regular, mass gun violence. Aligning himself with readers as a horrified witness to these deadly recurring events, Craig Rood balances outrage with perspective, weariness with resolve, sadness with hope that Americans may achieve mutual understanding on a topic that has produced mistrust and frustration. Rood respects the complexity of people’s different beliefs about guns while articulating a clear vision of a way forward. A stunning achievement.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Exploring the ways advocacy groups, community leaders, politicians, and everyday citizens talk about gun violence, Rood reveals how the gun debate is about far more than just guns. He details the role of public memory in shaping the discourse, showing how memories of the victims of gun violence, the Second Amendment, and race relations influence how gun policy is discussed. In doing so, Rood argues that forgetting and misremembering this history leads interest groups and public officials to entrenched positions and political failure and drives the public further apart.
Timely and innovative, After Gun Violence advances our understanding of public discourse in an age of gridlock by illustrating how public deliberation and public memory shape and misshape one another. It is a search to understand why public discourse fails and how we can do better.
“Written with passion, insight, and eloquence, After Gun Violence is a compelling exploration of a tragically American problem—regular, mass gun violence. Aligning himself with readers as a horrified witness to these deadly recurring events, Craig Rood balances outrage with perspective, weariness with resolve, sadness with hope that Americans may achieve mutual understanding on a topic that has produced mistrust and frustration. Rood respects the complexity of people’s different beliefs about guns while articulating a clear vision of a way forward. A stunning achievement.”
“A thoughtful and sobering analysis of America’s inability to engage in serious deliberation about gun violence. Rood traces the way that past debates have created a sense that the problem is simply intractable and demonstrates the way recent efforts to deal with gun violence were crushed under the weight of past failures. Drawing on the long history of rhetoric, Rood is able not only to analyze the present difficulties but also to suggest productive ways to move these debates forward. The stakes for such a project have never been higher. Rood’s book should be required reading for any citizen wanting to engage in a real debate about the role of guns in American society.”
“An empowering message of this book resides in the assurance that while we exist in this world that comes with its own meanings and past, we have the power within ourselves to change what language habits we use and pass down.”
“There could not be a more important time for a book like After Gun Violence—which connects the timely subjects of liberty, political discourse, and progress (or lack thereof). Although it was written with the specific intention of analyzing the gun debate through a rhetorical, academic lens, the lessons in After Gun Violence can be applied outside of the ivory tower and more broadly to issues beyond gun violence.”
Craig Rood is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at Iowa State University.
Introduction: Deliberating Gun Violence
1 Deliberation and Memory
2 The Weight of the Past: Memory and the Second Amendment
3 The Fleeting Past: Memory and Our Obligations to the Dead
4 The Implicit Past: Memory and Racism
5 Conclusions for Moving Beyond Gridlock
The Weight of the Past: Memory and the Second Amendment
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—Second Amendment, Bill of Rights, 1791
”Unlike the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights wasn’t cut into stone tablets. But the text surely has that same righteous feel to it. It’s as if you can sense the unseen hand of the Almighty God guiding the sweep of a goose quill pen, while some rebellious old white guys sweated out the birth of a nation.”—Charlton Heston, January 27, 1998
When Americans talk about gun policy, they regularly talk about the Second Amendment. Such was the case after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. A month after the shooting, the White House proposed expanding background checks, banning assault weapons, and limiting magazine capacity to ten rounds. In making the case for these proposals, President Obama attempted to challenge the presumption that debates about gun policy should only be about the Second Amendment. He claimed that this right, while crucially important, should not be allowed to infringe on other rights, such as free speech and the right to life. He also claimed that rights must coexist with responsibilities (a claim that I describe further in chapter 3). But Obama also addressed the Second Amendment head on, declaring, “Like most Americans, I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.” He continued, “I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.” Meanwhile, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, insisted that there could be no middle ground: any regulation, no matter how large or small, undermined the Second Amendment. “I’ve got news for the president,” LaPierre declared. “Absolutes do exist. Words do have specific meaning, in language and in law.” Announcing the NRA’s “four-year communications and resistance movement,” he warned that “the enemies of the Second Amendment will be met with unprecedented defiance, commitment and determination. We will Stand and Fight.”
When the Senate voted down the White House’s gun-control proposals on April 17, 2013, reporters and commentators searched to understand why this had happened. Robert Draper chronicled the NRA’s hand in the process. Draper noted that the NRA initially seemed open to working with Congress on expanding background checks. Senator Joe Manchin, who cosponsored the legislation, met Chris Cox and Jim Baker of the NRA in early March. Manchin reportedly “knew that the lobbyists were never going to embrace universal background checks. His hope was simply that they would not fight him.” But when word of the negotiations between senators and the NRA leaked, other gun-rights groups, such as the Gun Owners of America, sent out emails disparaging any potential compromise and blasting the NRA. The NRA felt the backlash from its “most-activist members.” Within a few days, “Cox and Baker stopped communicating with Manchin’s office.” When Manchin spoke to Baker on the phone, Baker announced that the NRA was now totally opposed to the bill: “We’re going to be fighting it with all we have.” And the NRA did. Senate office phone lines got flooded with calls. Staff members heard over and over again “the distinct and fevered outcry of a single-issue constituency with every intention of echoing its wrath at the ballot box.”
Draper’s chronicle offers a behind-the-scenes look at the legislative process in the spring of 2013, shedding light on the NRA’s enduring political power, backed by its ability to organize and mobilize members to donate money and pressure representatives. Yet Draper ignores several key questions: How has the NRA acquired and sustained such a wide and passionate following? What kind of worldview does it offer to its supporters? And how does it characterize America’s gun debate, particularly debates over the Second Amendment? To answer those questions, we need to examine the NRA’s rhetoric to its members and to the broader public.
The fight over the meaning and significance of the Second Amendment is rhetorically complex. Obama’s speech on the day of the Senate vote begins to illuminate this complexity. Obama charged, “The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. They claimed that it would create some sort of ‘big brother’ gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite. This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry. Plain and simple, right there in the text. But that didn’t matter.” Obama was telling the truth. The White House plan and the proposed legislation included no mention of a registry, yet the NRA warned that Obama “wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry. There are only two reasons for that federal list of gun owners—to tax them or take them.” Lies do matter; among other reasons, they undermine the common ground necessary for productive deliberation. Yet even if inadvertently, Obama’s comment highlights something else important about public deliberation. Whether we are deliberating specific legislation or the Second Amendment more generally, what is “right there in the text” matters—but it is not all that matters. The rhetorical struggle is not simply a textual one.
The battle over the Second Amendment is not confined to its twenty-seven words ratified in 1791. And although appeals to the Second Amendment can represent a legal argument, the amendment’s meaning and rhetorical power extend far beyond the law. The Second Amendment has been subject to over 225 years of history, culture, and politics. It bears the weight of its past. Through its own rhetorical history—how it has been invoked and repurposed across time—the Second Amendment has been infused with meaning and made to matter in distinct ways.
“Rhetoric,” Thomas B. Farrell explains, “is the art, the fine and useful art, of making things matter.” Farrell urges rhetorical scholars to examine “how our largely unstudied conceptions of ‘worth’ are themselves created, enhanced, and reaffirmed.” To focus on the weight of rhetoric requires that we examine how certain ideas or values are “made to matter and why.” The simple act of mentioning the Second Amendment—and doing so again and again—suggests its magnitude. But its weight is also established by how it is used, particularly in public talk. To understand current debates about the Second Amendment and why it is so difficult to debate productively requires that we examine these accumulated meanings.
This chapter proceeds in four steps. First, I describe America’s gun culture and note that it is sustained by a variety of forces, most notably stories about who “we” are individually and as Americans. Second, I identify how gun-rights advocates regularly invoke the Second Amendment as if it were a direct, unvarnished inheritance from America’s Founding Fathers. Yet this assumption of immediacy is problematic. Third, I trace how the NRA has helped recast the Second Amendment as an absolute right and entangled it with America’s culture war. In so doing, the NRA has changed the meaning and significance of the Second Amendment. And in the final section, I draw the two previous claims together to contend that it is inaccurate to depict the Second Amendment as a self-evident truth rather than as an argument. But this argument depends on public memories largely built and sustained by gun-rights advocates. Consequently, if there is any chance for productive deliberation about the Second Amendment, gun-control advocates and gun-rights advocates alike must recognize that the gun debate is not simply about the Second Amendment that is etched into the Bill of Rights; it is also about the Second Amendment that lives, grows, and changes in public memory.
America’s Gun CultureGuns loom large in the American imagination. Although the attention we give to guns might be taken for granted, this development was not inevitable. As Spitzer asks, “Why do relatively simple metal-and-wood objects that do nothing more than propel metal at high speeds evoke such strong feelings?” One answer is relatively simple: guns evoke such strong feelings because they can kill and wound so easily. A second answer, however, is more complicated: guns evoke such strong feelings because they have played a central role in American life throughout history—or they are at least remembered as having done so. In the words of historian Richard Hofstadter, America has created and maintained a unique “gun culture.”
America’s gun culture today is sustained by the gun industry and gun-advocacy groups. But gun owners also sustain it: approximately 30 percent of Americans own at least one gun, and estimates suggest that these Americans own between two hundred and three hundred million guns. The gun culture is also sustained by products (hunting gear, targets, movies, books, magazines, video games, toys, etc.), as well as institutions (e.g., the military), events (e.g., gun shows), places (e.g., shooting ranges), education (e.g., hunter safety courses and more informal modes of instruction), relationships (e.g., family and friends), and so on. Gun culture covers a variety of practices—harmless ones, such as collecting guns or shooting clay pigeons, and harmful ones, such as shooting people—and thus includes moments of joy as well as moments of horror. Above all, though, gun culture is animated by stories—whether accurate or not—about who “we” are individually and as Americans.
In America’s beginning, there were guns—first to fight the British and then to claim the West: “Moving westward in the post-Revolutionary period, American frontiersman required firearms to hunt, ward off threatening wildlife, and vanquish Native Americans, cattle rustlers, and pugnacious troublemakers in mining camps and other untamed surroundings. In areas with little if any organized law enforcement, private individuals relied on themselves for protection.” Cook and Goss explain that the gun culture of today “has its roots in lived experience.” Yet “mass marketing and media” have also embellished the role of guns in American life. Spitzer notes that “although gun ownership dates to America’s beginnings, it was far less prevalent in or important to colonial and early federal life than popular impressions and mythology suggest.” There are numerous reasons: “Guns were expensive, cumbersome, difficult to operate, unreliable, and made from materials (mostly iron) that deteriorated rapidly even with regular maintenance.” Moreover, “subsistence agriculture, including the raising of crops and animals, was the main source of sustenance for most Americans, not the hunting of wild game.”
Guns gained prominence in American life after the Civil War due to technological advances that made guns “cheaper, more reliable, easier to use, and more durable.” But they also gained prominence because gun manufacturers such as Samuel Colt “developed advertising campaigns that deliberately romanticized the attachment to guns.” America’s gun culture, Pamela Haag reminds us, is largely a business that “developed out of an unexceptional, perpetual quest for new and larger markets.”
Historians describe a large gap between frontier myth and reality. While Americans then and now might imagine the 1800s as a time of “western-style shoot-outs,” such violence was actually quite rare, even in the “most violent cow towns of the old West—Abilene, Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth, and Witchita.” As Richard Shenkman puts it, “The truth is many more people have died in Hollywood westerns than ever died on the real frontier.” And while Americans might imagine that everyone in frontier towns was armed, gun control was actually quite common. Adam Winkler explains that “almost everyone carried firearms in the untamed wilderness,” but in frontier towns, “where people lived and businesses operated, the law often forbade people from toting their guns around.” For example, during the 1870s, a sign in Wichita read “Leave Your Revolvers at Police Headquarters, and Get a Check.” In Dodge City, a billboard read, “The carrying of firearms strictly prohibited.” Winkler explains that “frontier towns handled guns the way a Boston restaurant today handles overcoats in winter. New arrivals were required to turn in their guns to authorities in exchange for something like a metal token.”
It is important, of course, to strive for an accurate historical record and to correct inaccuracies, as I have tried to do here. Yet accuracy is not the only value that guides storytelling and remembering. What stories a group tells and remembers is shaped in part by their present needs and goals. Haag notes, for instance, that the “emotional and political affinity for the gun was perhaps a post-frontier phenomenon of the twentieth century talking about the nineteenth.” The stories told about the role of guns in American life came from many sources, including “entrepreneurial fiction writers, movie makers, showmen, political advocates, and even gun makers.” And this storytelling has continued throughout the twentieth century to today and become even more rhetorically complex.
Whether accurate or not, the stories that Americans tell and remember about themselves are key to understanding America’s gun culture—and gun debate. In what follows, I examine the stories that the NRA tells about who “we” are individually and as Americans and, in turn, consider how these stories have shaped public deliberation about guns and the Second Amendment.
Appealing to the Founding FathersIn 1999, the NRA’s annual convention was scheduled to take place less than two weeks after the Columbine shooting. As fate would have it, the convention was planned to take place in Denver, about fifteen miles away from Columbine High School. The mayor of Denver requested that the convention be canceled. On May 1, 1999, approximately three thousand protestors “encircled the site,” singing songs and carrying signs, including ones that read “We Shall Overcome” and “Shame on the NRA.” The next day, approximately eight thousand protestors gathered a few blocks away on the front lawn of the capitol building. Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed in the shooting, spoke to the crowd, “It is time we own up to the fact that we have a violence problem in this society. Something is wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun so easily and shoot a bullet in the middle of a child’s face, as my son experienced.”
Inside the convention center, NRA members and leaders gathered for an “abbreviated annual gathering.” NRA President Charlton Heston expressed shock and horror about the recent shooting, yet he rejected the implication that the NRA, its members, or guns bore any responsibility for what had happened: “We have the same right as all other citizens to be here,” he explained in his opening remarks to the convention. In his closing remarks, he insisted that “America must stop this predictable pattern of reaction, when an isolated, terrible event occurs, our phones ring, demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable.” Heston nonetheless offers a partial explanation for the shooting by blaming the media, balkanization, immorality, and so on. But his primary focus was not to explain why mass gun violence happens or identify potential solutions to address it. Instead, Heston focused on defending the NRA, its members, and the right to own guns. “The individual right to bear arms,” Heston argued, “is freedom’s insurance policy.” Guns were not just about self-protection; guns were about protecting the rights that make America possible. Heston stated, “If you like your freedoms of speech and of religion, freedom from search and seizure, freedom of the press and of privacy, to assemble, and to redress grievances, then you’d better give them that eternal bodyguard called the Second Amendment.”
Gun-rights advocates, of course, regularly invoke the Second Amendment—that’s not surprising. What’s interesting is the justification they give. Heston, for instance, argues that the Second Amendment fulfills our present and future needs for self-defense. Yet he also suggests that we have a sacred obligation to the past—particularly to the Founding Fathers—to defend the Second Amendment: “We cannot, we must not, let tragedy lay waste to the most rare and hard-won human right in history.” Gun-rights advocates regularly invoke the Second Amendment as if it were a direct, unvarnished inheritance from America’s Founding Fathers. I ultimately think that this assumption of immediacy is false. But before developing that claim, I first want to further illustrate how the NRA appeals to the Founding Fathers and assess how those appeals function rhetorically.
Our Obligation to the Founding FathersHeston’s rhetoric—both before and after his 1999 appearance in Denver—is worth examining more closely. The actor-turned-activist joined forces with the NRA in the early 1980s when he appeared in its “I’m the NRA” ad campaign. In 1996, Heston “campaigned for more than fifty candidates who supported gun rights.” In 1997, NRA leaders convinced him that his celebrity would give increased visibility to the organization. He was elected vice president of the NRA that year and became president in 1998, serving as NRA president until 2003. Heston explained that he wanted to “bring the NRA back to the table of mainstream political debate.” He accomplished this in part through his celebrity—even those who had not seen him in movies such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Ten Commandments (1956), in which he played Moses, were struck by his square jaw and deep voice. Yet his celebrity alone does not explain how he helped bring the NRA into the mainstream of political debate. To help us understand how he did so, we must look at his arguments, particularly his appeal to the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers.
Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Committee on January 27, 1998, Heston stated, “Our ancestors were armed with pride, and bequeathed it to us—I can prove it. If you want to feel the warm breath of freedom upon your neck . . . if you want to touch the proud pulse of liberty that beat in our Founding Fathers in its purest form, you can do so through the majesty of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” Heston’s vivid description—“warm breath of freedom upon your neck,” “proud pulse of liberty”—suggests that the founders are not entirely dead. Instead, America’s founders come to life whenever we use guns or defend the Second Amendment. By implication, those who do not use guns or actively defend the Second Amendment are disconnected from the Founding Fathers.
In Heston’s telling, the Second Amendment is not simply a law but an inheritance that imposes a sacred and urgent obligation. Speaking at the NRA’s annual meeting on May 22, 1998, Heston begins by noting the significance of the meeting being held in Philadelphia: “This is where it all started, isn’t it? Right here in Philadelphia. Two and a quarter centuries ago, a bunch of amazing guys traveled here. They had freedom’s business to tend to.” Heston ends by returning to that theme, claiming that like “those great men that travelled here two and a quarter centuries ago, because of them, we have freedom’s business to tend to.” In short, the cause of the founders and the cause of the NRA become one and the same. Heston suggests that this mandate comes from the founders themselves: “I think Jefferson and Paine, Adams, Madison, Mason, Franklin, I think they’re looking down right now at us. I think they understand what we’re trying to do, what we strive to do. I came here to help make them proud of us.” With the founders looking down on them, NRA members should be brave and proud. Even small acts matter: “Never again will you think twice before saying you’re an NRA member, or think twice about putting that NRA decal on your car.”
Although Heston maintains that the Second Amendment is a direct inheritance from the Founding Fathers, he also suggests that this inheritance has been passed down from one generation to the next. Speaking before the National Press Club on September 1, 1997, Heston insists that the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, “must be delivered into the 21st century as pure and meaningful as they came to us at the beginning of this century.” He continues, “I believe the freedoms that provided my generation with so much opportunity must remain the birthright of each generation that carries the torch forward.” The torch metaphor suggests urgency, since torches can grow dim or dark. Carrying a torch forward emphasizes the obligation between generations and suggests continuity (i.e., the Second Amendment is the same as it has always been). Placing himself within the lineage of the Founding Fathers, Heston suggests that he is passing the torch directly from the founders to tomorrow’s gun-rights advocates: “Traditionally the passing of that torch is from a gnarled, old hand down to an eager, young one. So now, at 72, I offer my gnarled, old hand.”
Although Heston’s careful attention to metaphor is largely distinct to him, the same basic argument has appeared long after his time in the NRA. That is, the NRA continues to invoke the Second Amendment as if it were a direct, unvarnished inheritance from America’s Founding Fathers. In 2007, LaPierre of the NRA published The Essential Second Amendment Guide. The book cover features a painting entitled Stand Your Ground—Battle of Lexington Green. Even though the painting is from the perspective of a contemporary artist, Don Troiani, it seems like an authentic account of being on the battlefields of the American Revolution. The painting depicts a ragtag group of armed colonists in the foreground defending themselves against British soldiers in the background. The painting’s contrast is stark: the bottom left is dark, and the top right is bright; a large musket is featured in the painting’s center, pointing the way from darkness to light, from fear and oppression to confidence and freedom. In this depiction, the cause of the Founding Fathers becomes not merely similar to but synonymous with the cause of the NRA. The American Revolution is thus imagined as a war fought exclusively for the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment.
Within this book, LaPierre addresses his readers as “Fellow Americans.” He explains, “In the end, your commitment to our cause is all that guarantees the Second Amendment survives and thrives for generations to come. Thank you for keeping the flame of freedom burning brightly in American hearts.” A decade later, in a 2017 mailing to recruit NRA members, LaPierre stated, “Standing together under the NRA banner is the best guarantee for the long-term survival of our freedom, our heritage and our American way of life.” Like Heston had done, LaPierre suggests that the Second Amendment is a direct inheritance from the Founding Fathers, and he too suggests that we must preserve and perpetuate this inheritance to fulfill our obligations to the founders and to America. “Thank you,” he says, for your “hard work to keep our Second Amendment rights safe—and our nation free.”
Assessing the Appeals to the FoundersWhen rhetors invoke the Founding Fathers to defend the Second Amendment, the stakes of the debate are heightened: Will we honor and defend a sacred obligation, or will we let it die? The debate is over guns, to be sure, but the debate also becomes a battle over America’s past and future, over the character of America and ourselves as Americans. This rhetoric is powerful. But the assumption of immediacy with the Founding Fathers is false. This rhetoric defending the Second Amendment is just one example of a broader pattern of contemporary rhetoric that invokes the Founding Fathers as the ultimate authority. Historian Jill Lepore describes this unwavering—albeit selective—allegiance to the Founding Fathers as “historical fundamentalism”:
Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—“the founding”—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—“the founding documents”—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.
Lepore points out that even if we wanted to, we “cannot go back to the eighteenth century, and the Founding Fathers are not, in fact, here with us today.” To assume such a time collapse is to engage in fiction. Building on Lepore’s work, Jeremy Engels highlights that this “time warp” skips over “the messiness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” while promising to take us “back to a simpler, purer time.” But what gets left out is perhaps most notable about this imagined world. Lepore describes it as “a fantasy of America before race, without race.” It is a world without women, “aside from Abigail Adams,” and without “slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness, or misery.” In this imagined whitewashed world, all that is left are “the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending their right to bear arms.”
Historical fundamentalism—or what Andrew Burstein more narrowly calls “founder fundamentalism”—asserts that good Americans must fulfill their “duty to protect the reputation of those unimpeachable sources of authority who carried the eternal word of the founding.” Highlighting the complexity of interpretation, Burstein shows how just one founder—Thomas Jefferson—has been cast in different roles throughout U.S. history, including an “FDR liberal, a Reagan republican, and a Tea Party fanatic.” Moreover, Jefferson has been invoked as both the enemy and champion of racial equality and as both a defender and a threat to religious liberty. The complexities of interpretation are only amplified when moving from Jefferson to the Founding Fathers in general. To invoke the Founding Fathers is to assume a specific group of men who shared one mind while ignoring questions about who is included and excluded and ignoring the fact that these men did not all agree with one another (or even themselves, since a person’s opinion can change over time and circumstance). And to invoke the Founding Fathers as if they offer self-evident truths to us across the breach of more than two centuries ignores how history and our current standpoints and goals shape our reception of the Founding Fathers and their purported lessons.
And then there is the question about obligation. Not only does the NRA assume that the founders reached consensus, that this consensus can be easily discerned, that they would have maintained that consensus despite the social and technological changes over the last two centuries, and that the founders’ views reflect those of the NRA. The NRA also assumes that the founders present us with an obligation and that we must accept it. Yet this assumption was debatable even among the Founding Fathers themselves. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote to James Madison on September 6, 1789, asking “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another.” Jefferson’s conclusion, at least in this letter, was that “‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Despite Madison’s protests, Jefferson imagined that the U.S. Constitution might be updated or even rewritten every nineteen years. At least outside the context of the gun debate, most contemporary Americans recognize that the founders were not infallible and that we are not obliged to carry out everything that they believed, practiced, or enshrined into law (e.g., slavery). Even if we believe that the founders do impose an obligation to uphold a right to bear arms without any restriction (which is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, as I explain later), it is not obvious whether that should be our only obligation or why it should be the most important one.
To be clear, I am not claiming that the NRA gets the Founding Fathers and the Second Amendment right or wrong (although that question is not unimportant). Instead, my claim is more fundamental: the NRA depicts the meaning of the Second Amendment and our obligations to the Founding Fathers as self-evident truths; however, these depictions are actually arguments. But the fact that the NRA and other gun-rights advocates are implicitly arguing when they invoke the founders and the Second Amendment is not a problem; the problem is that they attempt to hide the fact that they are arguing at all. Their concealment allows them to assert rather than argue that their version of the Second Amendment is obviously true. Meanwhile, this assertion of obviousness attempts to hide the fact that there are actually disagreements about the meaning and significance of the Second Amendment. If any disagreement is acknowledged, it is discounted out of hand: arguments opposing a self-evident truth are obviously wrong; to oppose a self-evident truth suggests that the dissenter is not only wrong but also foolish or—given the importance of the Second Amendment—evil and un-American. Invoking the authority of the Founding Fathers further serves as a debate stopper, asking, in effect, Who are you to question the founders? Ridicule is used to hide questions about whether the accuser’s vision of the founders is accurate and relevant. The Second Amendment, in the NRA’s depiction, cannot be argued or debated, just obeyed. As I explore in the next section, this concealment allows the NRA and other gun-rights advocates to hide their own active role in shaping the meaning and significance of the Second Amendment.
The NRA Tips the ScaleAlthough gun-rights advocates regularly invoke the Second Amendment as if it were a direct, unvarnished inheritance from America’s Founding Fathers, such advocates actually play an active role in shaping its meaning and significance. As Michael Waldman explains, “Our view of the Second Amendment is set, at each stage, not by a pristine constitutional text, but by the push-and-pull, the rough-and-tumble of political advocacy and public agitation.” Taking a historical perspective on the NRA’s rhetoric over the last forty years helps reveal how the NRA actively contributed to this process. Specifically, I trace how the NRA has helped recast the Second Amendment as an absolute right and entangled it with America’s culture war. Examining these depictions of the Second Amendment are essential for understanding America’s collective inability to talk productively across differences about the Second Amendment and gun policy.
AbsolutismThe NRA depicts the Second Amendment as an absolute right. “Absolutes do exist,” LaPierre declared on January 22, 2013. “Words have specific meaning in language and in law.” On February 13, he explained that the NRA’s mission was to “preserve the inalienable, individual human right to keep and bear guns.” Notably, he says that this right is “inalienable”—it is inchallengeable, immutable, and absolute—and implies that the NRA’s goal is not to establish something new but to “preserve” what has allegedly been inherited. As LaPierre puts it, an absolute Second Amendment comes directly from the Founding Fathers: “We are as ‘absolutist’ as the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution . . . and we’re proud of it.”
The NRA’s depiction of the Second Amendment as an absolute contradicts how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment. Until 2008, the court upheld that the Second Amendment established a collective right to gun ownership so that citizens would be “prepared to carry these arms into battle in defense of the state.” The court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision was largely seen as a victory for gun-rights advocates. Overturning Washington DC’s handgun ban, the 5–4 majority claimed that the ban violated the Second Amendment. Moreover, the court affirmed that the Second Amendment does in fact protect an individual’s right to own and use firearms for self-protection, not just a collective right for militias. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own and use firearms for self-protection. Yet Scalia continued, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” The right was “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purposes.” This legal understanding of the Second Amendment clashes with the NRA’s claim that the regulations and the Second Amendment are wholly at odds.
Although the NRA currently maintains that regulations are wholly at odds with an absolute Second Amendment, this has not always been its stance. Karl T. Frederick, who was the NRA’s president in the 1930s, testified in congressional hearings over the proposed National Firearms Act, which was passed in 1934. He explained, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” Frederick was not an outlier. Milton A. Reckford, who was then the NRA’s executive vice president, told the congressional committee that the NRA was “absolutely favorable to reasonable gun control.” Winkler notes that the Second Amendment was “conspicuous in its absence from the NRA’s advocacy during this period.” For instance, when Frederick was asked during “his testimony on the National Firearms Act whether the proposed law violated any constitutional provision, he responded, ‘I have not given it any study from that point of view.’” In other words, “the President of the NRA hadn’t even considered whether the most far-reaching federal gun control law to date was affected by the Second Amendment.”
For over one hundred years—from its founding in 1871 until its tumultuous change in leadership in 1977—the NRA’s mission was primarily focused on gun safety and marksmanship training. Prior to 1977, the NRA had advocated against gun legislation deemed unreasonable, but lobbying was not its primary focus. Things started to change in 1968. Raymond explains, “The Gun Control Act [GCA] of 1968 was considered a watershed in the history of the NRA because it highlighted two changes for the organization. First, the act brought thousands of new members to the organization, increasing its rolls to over 1 million men and women. Second and most important, the debate over the legislation exacerbated a split between the sportsmen and the politicos in the organization.” The sportsmen represented the old guard. They wanted the NRA to be devoted to “teaching gun safety, organizing shooting competitions, and running clinics for hunters.” They were not as concerned about gun policy. One of these sportsmen was the NRA’s executive vice president, General Franklin Orth. He had “testified before Congress in favor of the GCA, saying ‘We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the President of the United States.” The politicos, as represented by Harlon B. Carter, “disagreed vehemently, believing that gun control efforts would eventually restrict all varieties of gun ownership, including that of the sportsmen.” They believed that “the NRA needed to spend less time and energy shooting at paper targets and ducks and more blasting away at gun control legislation.”
Over the next decade, “these internal divisions brewed.” The tensions became unbearable when the sportsmen bought thirty-seven thousand acres of land in New Mexico. The money spent on a new rifle range meant less money for the organization’s lobbying efforts. But worse, the sportsmen expressed the desire that this planned National Shooting Center be instead called the National Outdoor Center. The proposed name change signaled that the center’s mission would extend beyond shooting to include “camping and wilderness survival training; conservation education; environmental awareness.” For the politicos, this “was treason.” Carter and the other politicos planned to take control of the organization. When the sportsmen learned of this, they fired “seventy-four NRA employees—most of them members of Carter’s hard-line group.” In protest of these firings, Carter resigned. “The members of the old guard breathed a sigh of relief,” and they moved forward with their plans to make “the NRA into the nation’s preeminent outdoors organization.” The sportsmen planned to sell their Washington, DC, headquarters and “move all operations to Colorado Springs, not far from the National Outdoor Center.”
Six months later, the NRA held its 1977 convention in Cincinnati. NRA leadership hoped that this convention would be an opportunity for reconciling, healing, and moving forward. But that year’s convention would become known as the Cincinnati Revolt. Carter and other hardliners “introduced several changes in the group’s bylaws that would diminish the power in the hands of the elected officials and give the membership more say in the organization’s affairs.” But that was just the start. Osha Gray Davidson explains, “The old guard never knew what hit them. The membership overwhelmingly voted for the changes. Plans to move the group’s headquarters to Colorado Springs were put on hold, as were those for the hated National Outdoor Center. And then the members overwhelmingly voted against nearly every top NRA official, one by one. When the smoke cleared, leaders of the Federation for the NRA occupied every position of power.” Minutes before being elected executive vice president, Carter insisted, “Beginning at this place and at this hour, this period in NRA history is finished.” Under Carter’s leadership, the NRA “became more than a rifle club. It became the Gun Lobby.” As Davidson explains, “Forget about the hunting clinics, forget about target shooting; those activities were now sideshows, mere extras. The new NRA would be devoted single-mindedly—and proud of the fact—to the proposition that Americans and their guns must never, never be parted.”
With the change in the NRA’s mission came an obsessive focus on the Second Amendment. Since 1957, a plaque outside NRA headquarters was inscribed with the motto “Firearm Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” But after Carter was elected vice president, there was a new motto: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” While this motto is taken from the Second Amendment, the amendment’s opening—“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the Security of a free State”—is excised and forgotten. This elision ignores questions about the nature and scope of the Second Amendment, including the text’s reference to the “Militia” and what counts as “well regulated.” Instead, the Second Amendment is transformed into a simple moral imperative: the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Although this selective quoting might be savvy marketing, it is a questionable use of history.
The NRA currently insists that the Second Amendment represents an absolute right and that this is obvious. Yet this claim is relatively new. Indeed, the NRA itself did not seem to fully realize it until the late 1970s. The NRA’s decision to depict the Second Amendment as an absolute right was a deliberate one. On his path to taking control of the NRA, Carter had written a letter in 1975 to the “entire NRA membership to discuss the fight in Congress over gun control.” He explained that “we can win it on a simple concept—No compromise. No gun legislation.” Carter’s message offered a blueprint for how the NRA has operated since. As just one example, consider Heston’s infamous ultimatum to gun-control advocates. After delivering a speech at the 1989 NRA members’ meeting, Heston was presented with a “beautiful, handcrafted musket. Lifting the gleaming muzzle-loader high over his head, Heston had intoned in his best Moses-with-the-Tablets voice: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’” He repeated that act again on other occasions, including his May 20, 2000, speech before the NRA convention. The implication was clear: Heston saw no room for compromise in the clash between gun-control advocates and gun-rights advocates. The “gun grabbers,” Richard Feldman explains, “would have to kill him to trample his Second Amendment rights.” Embracing an absolute Second Amendment has benefited the NRA. Beginning with Carter’s leadership, the NRA became “committed to a more rigid approach to gun control” and “became one of the most powerful forces in American politics.” As Winkler writes, “Armed with a new philosophy, the organization’s membership tripled, its fund-raising multiplied, and its influence soared.” “The NRA is a populist organization,” William J. Vizzard explains. “They get support when people are mad and stirred up. They want the attention. They’re not interested in fixing things. They want to stir things up, and the more they stir things up, the more members they get and the more money they make. What do they gain by compromising? Nothing.” Put differently, an NRA that offered a nuanced take on the Second Amendment would not evoke the passionate support evoked by an NRA that says the Second Amendment is absolute and that any restriction must be fought.
Given that the NRA is an advocacy organization, its hardline stance is not altogether surprising. Yet their rhetoric matters because it shapes how all Americans see the Second Amendment, gun policy, and their political opponents. When pollsters ask Americans about their views on gun control, there is generally a partisan divide. The Pew Research Center reports that in early January 2013, for instance, “51% of Americans say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 45% say it is more important to protect gun rights.” But those same polls show broad support for specific gun-control measures, such as “background checks for private and gun show sales” (85 percent in favor), “preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns” (80 percent in favor), a “federal database to track gun sales” (67 percent in favor), and a “ban on semi-automatic weapons” (58 percent in favor). How is it, then, that the same people who oppose “gun control” support specific gun-control measures? One reason is that gun control is ambiguous when discussed in the abstract, and the NRA has worked to transform that ambiguity into an all-encompassing threat. In the NRA’s telling, gun control means confiscating all guns and stripping all Americans of their right to self-defense. Even though few gun-control advocates propose such radical measures, the NRA insists that gun control equals a total ban and confiscation of all guns for all Americans.
By suggesting that any restriction on guns would constitute a total violation of the Second Amendment, the NRA provides a clear and stable answer in response to calls for gun control. Whenever there is a call for gun restrictions, the answer is always no, regardless of whether it is 1977 or 2017. They will be able to continue to say no in 2047. And the answer is no regardless of the strength of opponents’ arguments. If the argumentative standard is an unchanging principle—the right to bear arms shall not be infringed—then no statistics, studies, or cost-benefit analysis will ultimately be persuasive. But even when the argumentative standard shifts to a cost-benefit analysis, the NRA suggests that restrictions of any kind are bad because they lead us down a slippery slope. Expanded background checks might seem like a reasonable restriction, but they are simply a first step toward more and more restrictions—background checks today, a registry tomorrow, confiscation next week.
By depicting the Second Amendment as an absolute, the NRA attempts to erase qualitative judgments so that what might be considered a moderate restriction becomes equivalent to an outright ban. The NRA’s rhetoric escalates fear by suggesting that any conversation about the Second Amendment is a zero-sum game: total freedom or an outright ban. Further, it requires us to ignore that gun rights are currently regulated. Citizens cannot simply walk into a store and buy an automatic machine gun, and from 1994 to 2004, there was a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. Contrary to the NRA’s rhetoric, the Second Amendment was not eradicated by these restrictions; restrictions and the Second Amendment have coexisted.
Accepting the NRA’s vision of the Second Amendment also requires a relatively narrow understanding of freedom; people have freedom to rather than freedom from —they have freedom to “walk about with a loaded gun” but not “freedom from such things as gun violence.” And to accept the NRA’s vision of the Second Amendment requires us to ignore that other rights, such as free speech, are regulated rather than absolute.
Depicting the Second Amendment as an absolute shapes not only how Americans see gun policy but also how they see their political opponents. Contrary to Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” the NRA suggests that every difference of opinion is a difference of principle; moreover, a person’s opinion about the Second Amendment determines whether that individual is a good person and good American. Take, for instance, LaPierre’s statement on February 13, 2013: “We will not surrender. We will not appease. We will buy more guns than ever. We will use them for sport and lawful self-defense more than ever. We will grow the NRA more than ever. And we will be prouder than ever to be freedom-loving NRA patriots. And with your help, we will ensure that the Second Amendment remains America’s First Freedom. We will stand and fight.” Either we must win or we must “surrender” and “appease.” Acceptance of any restriction is rendered as both a political and personal failure. Compromise becomes a sign of weakness and inevitable defeat. In LaPierre’s telling, “we” must be vigilant against “them”; they are an unredeemable, dangerous enemy, who cannot be trusted and whose goal is to leave “us” totally defenseless. We should be proud “freedom-loving NRA patriots” who will “stand and fight” for the Second Amendment. While this rhetoric is incredibly powerful, it depends on flawed logic (e.g., there are only these two options) that escalates a difference of opinion into a difference in identity (e.g., you are either a “good” American or not) and that justifies rhetorical, if not physical, confrontation with the enemy (e.g., “We will stand and fight”). Gun-rights supporters are told that being a person of conviction requires writing off all who differ about one issue—the SecondAmendment—as wholly bad people and bad Americans. The NRA’s rhetoric demands that gun-rights supporters pledge allegiance to the NRA. You are either with them or against them. There is no middle ground, no space for exceptions or doubts. To waiver is to abandon the cause entirely.
Culture WarOn February 13, 2013, Wayne LaPierre told NRA supporters, “We can’t win the political war if we lose the cultural war.” In the NRA’s telling, the debate about the Second Amendment is about far more than guns. It is about cultural values and practices. By entangling the Second Amendment with America’s culture war, the meaning of the Second Amendment gets transformed, and its significance gets amplified.
The rhetoric of culture war has deep roots in U.S. history, although it fully bloomed in the 1980s and 1990s. In his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America , James Davison Hunter described an America fundamentally divided over social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in public schools. Disagreement about prayer in school, for instance, was not simply a disagreement about prayer in school. The rhetoric of culture war suggested that this disagreement revealed fundamentally different systems of morality and visions for America’s future. “We” were at battle with “them.” To compromise meant far more than to accept an imperfect or even irritating policy; to compromise revealed moral weakness and a threat to one’s core beliefs and identity. Hunter suggested that the dividing lines in the culture war between the “orthodox” and the “progressive” were long in the making. Yet savvy politicians and opinion leaders exploited whatever divisions there were. To create a base of passionate supporters, they made the chasms between Americans appear wider and unbridgeable.
Today, the Second Amendment and the culture war are intertwined. But this was by design, not necessity. The NRA’s rhetoric during the 1990s helped bring the gun debate and America’s culture war together; its rhetoric is both a consequence and a contributor to this larger culture war. Speaking at the NRA’s annual convention on May 20, 2000, Heston identified that he had been committed to three goals during the first two terms of his presidency. In addition to bringing the NRA “back to the table of mainstream political debate,” he sought “to rebuild our NRA membership” and “to rebuild our NRA war chest.” Culture-war rhetoric helped achieve all three of these goals.
Heston delivered perhaps his most notable culture-war speech at the 1997 Conservative Political Action Conference. Although he was not yet NRA president, he used this very same culture-war rhetoric to advance the NRA’s mission. “America,” Heston claimed, “yearns to be true to itself again, to return to that warm fireside of common sense and common values.” In Heston’s telling, then, the fight over the Second Amendment is a fight over America’s identity and values. This fight even includes questions about whether truth and morality are situational or absolute. Heston argued that “either we know who we are and what we stand for, or we surrender to situational everything, where there is no absolute truth, no unrelenting conviction, no unshakable policy. This is a definitive moment for America’s identity.”
Speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference on January 27, 1998, Heston began with a quote from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We are now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation . . . or any nation so conceived . . . and so dedicated . . . can long endure.” He continued, “Lincoln was right. Friends, let me tell you: You are engaged again in a great civil war . . . a cultural war that’s about to hijack you right out of your own birthright. And I fear that you no longer trust the pulsing life blood inside you that made this country rise from mud and valor into the miracle that it still is.” By likening the culture war of the 1990s to the Civil War of the 1860s, the stakes soar. The Second Amendment becomes a site of battle over America’s future. In Heston’s telling, our opponents seek to “hijack” our “birthright,” so we must go to war against them.
A gun, Heston insisted, “stands for something.” Indeed, through the NRA’s culture-war rhetoric, guns have come to stand for all sorts of things. Such rhetoric draws wide battle lines. In Heston’s telling, the world is clearly divided between the virtuous, conservative, freedom-loving NRA members and their immoral, liberal, freedom-hating NRA opponents who would destroy the Second Amendment. Heston praises “traditional family units, cops who’re on your side, clergy who aren’t kooky, safe schools, certain punishment, manageable conflict.” He argues that good Americans “prefer the America they built—where you could pray without feeling naïve, love without being kinky, sing without profanity, be white without feeling guilty, own a gun without shame, and raise your hand without apology. They are the masses who find themselves under siege and long for you to get some guts, stand on principle and lead them to victory in this cultural war. They are sick and tired of national social policy that originates on Oprah, and they’re ready for you to pull the plug.” While Heston attempts to unify his supporters against a common enemy, these enemies are notably varied and wide-ranging, including “MTV-bred malcontents” and supporters of “cradle-to-grave socialism.” He routinely rails against President Clinton, the manipulative media, and purveyors of political correctness. According to Heston, what divides the two sides of the battle is an issue of character: “It’s a clash between the principled and the unprincipled.”
The fact that the NRA participates in and contributes to the culture war is not surprising or new (Scott Melzer’s Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War does an excellent job of tracing this history.) But what’s important here is how the NRA’s culture-war rhetoric gets entangled with the Second Amendment. Culture-war rhetoric has been added to debates about the Second Amendment, and this addition is relatively recent. Needless to say, there’s no mention of MTV in the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the private correspondence of the Founding Fathers. Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson—pick any other founder—did not know about the debates to come concerning political correctness, gay marriage, or Bill Clinton’s infidelity.
Adding the culture-war frame to the Second Amendment debate is significant because it shapes how Americans see the Second Amendment and each other. First, the NRA depicts its political opponents as bad people rather than simply mistaken or different. At best, they are unprincipled and uninterested in freedom; at worst, they are “yanking the Bill of Rights from our lives like a weathered handbill stuck under your windshield wiper.” Those enemies lack self-control, and their weaknesses are destroying America. “Self-gratification,” Heston warned, “has displaced honor, greed has erased good taste, the desires of the moment have undermined basic morality.” Second, this allegedly evil opposition is not limited to gun-control advocates; indeed, some opponents might actually have no opinion on gun control. The opposition includes anyone who has joined the other side of the culture war (or who has been placed on that side simply because they are not wholly on “our” side). This logic works enthymematically—listeners can supply their own examples of enemies, whether it is the person who opposes school prayer, the person who watches MTV, or the person they dislike for whatever reason. The fight over the Second Amendment, then, becomes omnipresent. Since there is no escape from the gun debate, we must be ever vigilant.
Finally, this rhetoric attempts to lock in conservatives who are not necessarily gun-rights advocates and transform moderate gun-rights supporters into activists. Beliefs and values come only as a package deal. The NRA’s vision of the Second Amendment is placed alongside truth, morality, and decency; if one cares for decency, then they ought to fight for the NRA’s vision of the Second Amendment. The debate over guns is just one front of battle, yet it is nonetheless integral to the larger war effort. In the NRA’s telling, to fight for one is to fight for all, and to abandon one is to abandon all. There is no middle ground, no space for a gun-rights advocate to waiver. Nor is there any space for a gun-control advocate to still be moral or patriotic.
The Text and UsRecognizing arguments about the Second Amendment as arguments —as claims that could be otherwise, that can be judged persuasive or not, that require adequate evidence and support, and so on—can go a long way to improving public deliberation about the Second Amendment. But we also need to remember that arguments do not simply emerge from the text of the Second Amendment. Because of this, disagreements about the meaning or significance of the Second Amendment are unlikely to be resolved simply by pointing to the text. The text matters for interpretation, but so do the interpreters. My brief rhetorical history has demonstrated that the Second Amendment has gained layers of meaning throughout its use in public discourse, layers that were not present in 1791. Today, any mention of the Second Amendment begins in the middle. The Second Amendment, for better or worse, bears the weight of its rhetorical history, a weight that has accrued in public memory. In turn, public memory shapes how Americans see the Second Amendment, including its significance and meaning.
While I have focused on the NRA’s role in shaping the public memory of the Second Amendment, they are not the only contributor. Public memory can include what is remembered from previous deliberations about gun violence and gun policy. And public memory is not limited to the political arena; it can be shaped by representations of guns and gun violence in popular culture, including television and movies. To examine all public memories in their entirety is an impossible task. Yet the concept of public memory draws attention to the deep reservoir of rhetorical resources that we all draw from when interpreting and arguing. In particular, how we remember the Second Amendment is crucially tied to the stories that we are told and that we tell about who we are as individuals and as Americans. In what follows, then, I highlight memory’s relationship to narrative and identity to further illustrate how the weight of the past makes public deliberation so difficult.
Memory and NarrativeGun-control advocates have attempted to rebrand themselves and shift the key terms of the gun debate. Organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety suggest that the issue is about gun reform and gun safety, not gun control. Yet for gun-rights advocates, the issue remains one of control. On January 22, 2013, LaPierre argued that Obama’s proposed expansion of background checks would mean “forcing law-abiding people to fork over excessive fees to exercise their rights. Forcing parents to fill out forms to leave a family heirloom to a loved one—standing in line and filling out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork, just so a grandfather can give a grandson a Christmas gift. [Obama] wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry.” As I mentioned earlier, LaPierre’s allegations were false: the proposal included no federal registry, and the background checks would exclude transfers between family members. He also exaggerates the inconvenience that would be posed by expanded background checks (e.g., “standing in line and filling out a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork”) and makes no mention of the potential benefits. But how might we engage with LaPierre’s rhetoric? This rhetoric is powerful because it fits into—and perpetuates—a common narrative of a big, untrustworthy government seeking to regulate and thus worsen people’s lives. His word choices illustrate this anxiety: the government is the aggressor, and the citizen is the victim; the government is “forcing” us, making us “fork over excessive fees,” and putting us “under the thumb of the federal government.” And all this is being done to create a “massive federal registry” that will only inconvenience and infringe on the rights of “law-abiding people.”
Guns are incidental to this larger narrative, which could encompass any form of perceived overreach by the government, from the regulation of building permits to that of soda size. This narrative of an overreaching government coexists with other narratives that live in memory, both public and individual, including the narrative of our obligation to the founders, the narrative that we are in a dangerous world, the narrative that we are responsible for ourselves and that guns are our best means of self-protection, and so on. Narratives are powerful because they provide an orientation for understanding the world. They run deep yet are easily adaptable to new circumstances. A narrative can provide immunity against more traditional forms of evidence, such as statistics and expert testimony. To challenge someone’s narrative, then, requires understanding its narrative logic and perhaps even offering a counternarrative.Memory and Identity
To argue about values and narratives already implies the importance of identity. Which narratives resonate with individuals and which values and policies they want to triumph in these narratives tell us something about who they are and how they see themselves. Identity matters, of course, yet there is a balance at stake. Taken to their rhetorical extreme, identity claims can supplant any cost-benefit analysis of policy or values. The debate can become transformed into one of warring identities. As Laura J. Collins argues, “The unbridled Second Amendment is more about identity than it is about political action or change.” LaPierre’s speech on January 22, 2013, provides evidence for this claim: “We are not people to be trivialized, marginalized or demonized as unreasonable. We’re not children who need to be parented or misguided ‘bitter clingers’ to guns and religion. We get up every day, we work hard to pay our taxes, we cherish our families and we care about their safety. We believe in living honorably and living within our means.” In LaPierre’s rhetoric, “we” are being attacked on all fronts. LaPierre appeals to—and creates—an audience united by a shared sense of victimhood. Illustrating what Engels calls the politics of resentment, LaPierre depicts his audience as victims and blames others as the source for all suffering, imagined or real. The fight over who “we” are as individuals and Americans is simultaneously a fight over who “we” are not, over defining ourselves as unlike or in opposition to “them.”
Such identity rhetoric may simply remind some gun-rights advocates of what they already believe. But such rhetoric can also invite audiences to assume a particular identity position and prescribe how they might see the world and interact with others. In LaPierre’s rhetoric, the opposition is not reasonable; they are malicious and take joy in humiliating “you”: “They portray law-abiding gun owners like you as the members of some lunatic fringe. They attack you in the press and call you a second-class citizen. They say your faith in firearm freedom has no place in today’s world. They want to muzzle and marginalize you, and strip you of your political power.” Since “they” are so vicious and unreasonable, they must be overpowered, not negotiated with. To overcome their suffering and realize their full potential, NRA members are urged to meet their enemies with “unprecedented defiance, commitment, and determination.” The stakes of arguing about the Second Amendment thus become extraordinarily high; more than gun policy, the consequences of this debate get reframed as an all-out battle for identity and dignity, even survival.
ConclusionGiven the NRA’s depiction of the fight over the Second Amendment, it is not immediately clear how gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates might work together. Passion is to be expected in the gun debate because the stakes are perceived as being incredibly high. But that passionate commitment should also have a sense of proportion. The NRA does not own the Second Amendment. Nor do they own the Founding Fathers and patriotism. Gun-rights advocates have a unique obligation to disavow the NRA’s more extreme rhetoric.
Although the ritual of demonization and dismissal can help with short-term advocacy, it ultimately undermines the possibility for productive deliberation or peaceful coexistence by splitting Americans further apart. Gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates alike might resist this ritual by searching for more humane ways of seeing one another. As Collins writes, “Rather than disposing of those arguments that we find irrational or fringe—rejecting the passionate pleas of the ‘true believers’ or the ‘nuts’—we must pay attention to them. To explain them away or to ignore them is to avoid the difficult question of why they exist.”
Throughout this chapter, I have drawn attention to the weight of the past in order to highlight that mistrust and misunderstanding have been built up over time, in part through the creation, circulation, and appropriation of public memories. The rhetorical complexity of the fight over the meaning and significance of the Second Amendment suggests that there are no simple and easy solutions for improving public deliberation. But one thing is clear: as long as this rhetorical complexity is ignored, arguments about the Second Amendment will continue to fall on unreceptive ears.
The Second Amendment is inscribed in parchment, but its primary home is in the public memories built by gun-rights advocates. The meaning and significance of the Second Amendment are products of its use and misuse throughout its rhetorical history, particularly over the last forty years. If there is any hope, then, for productive deliberation, we all must reckon with the Second Amendment’s accumulated weight.
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