In case there were any doubts about the NRA’s noble political arguments for expansive gun rights, the gun lobby’s embrace of Donald Trump should sweep them away. The NRA always reminds us that it puts ‘freedom first,’ but in truth, it cares not a whit about our democracy and basic rights; its only concern is to expand the gun market, at any cost. What’s more, in sticking by the disastrous and openly racist Trump campaign, the NRA risks alienating itself and its agenda—perhaps fatally.
Connecticut is home to some of the strongest and most passionate gun safety groups, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012. They successfully prevailed upon state lawmakers to pass some of the strongest gun safety laws in the nation. This cannot be said for the rest of the country. The NRA successfully beat back gun safety reforms at the federal level, post Sandy Hook—including a measure that would have closed the gaps in the background check system—a provision that is supported by 90 percent of Americans.
After Sandy Hook, many were quite shocked that gun rights advocates came out unapologetically, defended their uncompromising position, and actually demanded more guns, and fewer restrictions. In the wake of this tragedy, where 20 first graders were gunned down in the classroom, why on earth should we consider turning back increased regulations, according to gun rights folks?
Writing in the Washington Times, conservative commentator Andrew Napolitano explains: “The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively.” This is a popular gun rights interpretation of the Second Amendment: it was intended to give us, the democratic people, the ability to fight back against would-be tyrants; thus, unrestricted civilian gun ownership is essential to keeping this a democracy at all.
What regulations are tolerable under this reading of the Second Amendment? None really—assault weapons are certainly acceptable—and necessary—for this purpose; high capacity magazines, too—even fully automatic weapons. Napolitano concluded his piece, saying to proponents of gun safety regulations post Sandy Hook, “Did you empower the government to impair the freedom of us all because of the mania and terror of a few?”
I have written elsewhere that this argument makes little sense in the 21st century. An assortment of unaffiliated, unorganized —albeit well armed— gun owners cannot hope to pose any credible challenge to our government, which has the most formidable and sophisticated military on the planet at its disposal.
But that is not the main issue at hand. In general, the NRA has sought to lend gun owners and its staunchest supporters an air of political nobility: they are on the look out for would-be tyrants in our government; they will be the vanguard of any response to despotism at the highest levels; they have our democratic power, and constitutional rights foremost in mind. By embracing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump—unequivocally—the gun rights movement reveals that its proud words about tyranny and despotism are empty.
It has been reported that the NRA is one of Mr. Trump’s last remaining sources of support; so staunch is NRA support that the lobby has taken it upon itself to fund ads on behalf of the candidate, directed against Hillary Clinton. This is ill-advised; it is also shockingly hypocritical.
Trump is the most unabashedly authoritarian candidate in recent memory. He has voiced admiration for the likes of Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un. Trump has promised to fight the war on the terror in a more brazen and autocratic manner than the previous two administrations, both of which were accused of abusing executive powers in waging said war. Among Trump’s proposals is the execution of terrorists’ families, something universally denounced as a human rights crime. More recently, Trump said he supports trying U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism in military tribunals, though U.S. citizens are constitutionally entitled to due process.
This speaks to a larger issue: the NRA routinely insists it will protect and uphold the Constitution —when it really only has the Second Amendment in mind— and its particular reading thereof.
Trump meanwhile has voiced support for a host of policies and proposals that would contravene the constitution, as it was recently outlined by Corey Brettschneider in Politico. Trump has favored “[opening] up those libel laws” to better sue the press, issuing a direct attack on the free speech protections offered under the 1st Amendment. “Trump’s statements about Muslims run up against so many clauses of the Constitution that it’s hard to pick one,” Brettschneider writes. Essentially, however, Trump has suggested in many ways and on numerous occasions that he would subject Muslims to “heavy profiling based not just on religion but also on race and ethnicity,” which clearly disregards the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. And Trump threatened the tenure of the federal judge charged with hearing the case against Trump University, if he becomes president. This is a clear defiance of the separation of powers inherent to the Constitution —and, supposedly forefront to the NRA’s interests in limiting expansions of executive power.
What’s more, with Trump, the NRA has aligned itself with the most openly racist campaign in 40 years—hardly advisable for an organization that aims to shake its image as the redoubt of angry white men.
Thanks to the candidate’s persistently caustic remarks, his flagrant disregard for the Constitution, and the frankly cruel tone of his campaign regarding minorities, Trump looks to be headed for a historic defeat—against a candidate whose weaknesses and shortcomings are well known, and who is also widely disliked. In short, it is hard to lose a presidential campaign as handily as Mr. Trump.
It’s shocking that an organization as savvy as the NRA would hitch its fortunes to such a disastrous and heinous campaign. Not long ago, the NRA was able to count widespread support from both sides of the political divide. In recent years, as the NRA has decided it will tolerate no regulations whatsoever, no matter how modest or how popular, the gun lobby has lost Democratic support. With Trump, the NRA has cast its lot with the most right wing of right wing voters, effectively marginalizing itself.
The NRA has decided to sink with the Titanic Trump campaign. It is an historic decision, one that may finally signal a dramatic change in the gun rights debate.
The NRA was once party to moderate gun safety regulations; CEO Wayne LaPierre voiced support for universal background checks. In recent years, the gun rights movement has been emboldened to insist upon the most radical policies —and in the process, it has progressively alienated vast swathes of the electorate. With each mass shooting over the past decade, the NRA has argued for more guns, and looser gun laws —and it has largely won.
But the gun lobby is now poised to pay for its extremism, and the monumental hypocrisy in backing a would-be tyrant like Trump.
Firmin DeBrabander is professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and author of Do Guns Make us Free? (Yale University Press, 2015)