Monday, January 31, 2011

Gun Owners Who Avoid The NRA

I've been thinking--and writing. Part of my writing has been working on the next issue of The Pines Review, but I've also been lost in thought on some of the issues we are going to be facing in the next couple of years. Sometimes there is a bit of coincidence with other events and it sparks me to write some notes for later use. Following is a cleaned up set of notes that came from a combination of reading my latest issue of Rifleman (NRA's publication)and watching CNN.

I am always amazed at the number of gun owners who are convinced the National Rifle Association is their enemy. How they became convinced of this is a mystery to me, although I do believe the news media is largely responsible, but irrespective of the source, the outcome is the same—they want to believe their strongest ally is their enemy. This came home for me recently (again) while I was watching CNN. I usually watch CNN because I can’t stand soaps and CNN at least has news feeds from around the world. I’ve tried watching Fox but honestly, I want to know what the “other” guys are thinking. I already know where Fox news and its commentators’ heads are, but I’m not always sure where the other media heads are—other than locked step in “stupid” comments. In a recent newscast CNN’s Ali Velshi, who is supposed to be the business anchor, decided to promote an article from the “New York Times” headlined, “N.R.A Stymies Firearms Research, Scientists Say” and then Velshi called for viewer comments. Since I was still in my “reading” time and my laptop was not on, I opted not to read the article nor respond to another CNN push against guns. Besides, I was still stinging from learning that someone I thought was pro-NRA actually isn’t. He’s a gun owner, hunter and member of the military and I learned of his position when I asked if he would support me if should decide to run for the NRA Board of Directors.

Why are so many people who enjoy the rights and privileges that the NRA defended and won for gun owners hostile to the NRA? I believe their hostility stems from misunderstanding the NRA’s political role and its effectiveness, a misunderstanding resulting from misinformation and from the use of a grungy “tough guy” image as representative of the NRA’s grassroots membership during the NRA’s growth periods of the 1980s through much of the 90s. The image was popularized by the media which zeroed in on the “cold, dead hands” position that epitomized the entrenchment of gun owners against the suddenly powerful anti-gun community, which had grown exponentially following the failed Reagan assassination that left James Brady disabled. Sarah and James Brady capitalized on their new political influence with a wide segment of the population; they used the shooting and its aftermath to provide political fuel to Handgun Control, Inc. (now Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence). The anti-gun community’s most recent gambit is to characterize gun owners as psychology off-balance and then link this image to the unkempt tough guy, the cold, dead hands, Wild West, and other characterizations, all intended to create an unacceptable image of contemporary gun owners. The antis are trying to fuel this characterization by redirecting the national outpouring of support for Congresswoman Giffords, and the other victims, into a personal distaste for, and misunderstanding of, the verbal political jousting of recent elections by creating a “guilt by association” perception of gun owners, although there is no actual association! Regardless of the absence of legitimacy for the claims the anti-gun community is able to feed sound bites and features that imply the lunatic fringe dominates gun ownership.

Now, and in the coming few years, it is essential for the NRA to connect with the grassroots society, creating a repeat of the NRA’s successful defeat of most (not all) anti-gun legislation of the 80s and 90s by mobilizing this segment of society. Unfortunately, the grassroots movement, no matter how influential at the time, did not completely resonate throughout the nation’s gun owner/hunter population and many supportive elements have drifted away in the past ten years. The simple truth is that to expand NRA’s membership beyond its present community will become more difficult, even with the growth of the outdoor media personalities on the outdoor channels, because the once successful NRA costumes no longer resonate with much to the gun owner population.

One persistent problem is that when we put our NRA leadership before the press they appear to be Wall Street clones. Some people might believe that red ties and dark suits radiate confidence and a rock solid public image, but it doesn’t. It is a costume, just as the hunter who wears his cammies into a shopping mall is wearing a costume. Each one is trying to project an image for others to notice. All of us wear costumes, whether it is blue jeans and tee shirts with political slogans or a tailored blue suit and a red tie. What we are trying to project with each costume is important to our success or failure as public representatives of what we are. It is unfortunate that the costumes holding down each end of the NRA spectrum are sending mixed signals to the public they are meant to influence. The “suit” no longer conveys confidence and a solid public image; a decade of broken promises, lies, and marital infidelity and embezzlement schemes by politicians has turned the suit into burnt toast. As for the grunge and tough guy look at the other end, it has lost resonance with much of the grassroots population for many of the same reasons.

If we truly want to tap into that population of grassroots gun owners who are not NRA members it is time for the NRA leadership to take stock of their costumes and message. President Obama’s counselors understand costuming and they’ve re-crafted his image and delivery. On the news networks I’ve been watching him walk, go up and down stairs, alter his clothing (very slightly); both his delivery and his message have changed subtly and become more effective with many Americans. Neither our NRA suit and red ties nor our grunge members have a voice with a large segment of the millions of gun owners we are trying to reach. The NRA leadership needs to take a few lessons and maybe hire some experts to begin making changes. Remember, we don’t need to convince the gun owners who already belong to the NRA; we need to convince the gun owners who are not part of the NRA.

If you hunt, or just own a firearm and shoot at the local range, and you are not a member of the NRA what would it take for you to become a member? Think about it.


Anonymous said...

I own handguns, rifles and shotguns and am an avid reloader, shooter and hunter. I won't give a penny to the NRA, ever. You're quite confused if you think it's the suits and red ties, it's the vicious NRA attacks against good people. Try Googling "NRA" together with either of the names Jim Zumbo or Dan Cooper. You NRA guys eat your own. Question using assault rifles for hunting (as Zumbo did - even after qualifying that he was a traditionalist) and lose your career. Support Obama (in Cooper's case) and lose the gun company you founded to save your workers jobs. I have plenty of democratic friends who support gun rights, not a one of them is an NRA member. The freedom of speech is as fundamental to American freedom as gun rights are, but if you are in the gun business and express an opinion in opposition to the NRA, the NRA will destroy you. There is no room in the NRA for any opinion except the NRA hardline. I consider the NRA backed attacks on Zumbo and Cooper Un-American. That's why I will never support the NRA.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

My perspective is somewhat similar to Anonymous's above. I know people who have spent time inside NRA headquarters and have been told by NRA employees that "these walls have ears." The employees' views might differ from the NRA hard-line but they only dared to express those views elsewhere. Like Anonymous, I think dissent, political diversity, and civil debate are crucial to a healthy democracy. As far as I can tell, the NRA does not tolerate such things.

Blake Sobiloff said...

Thoughtful comments, Galen. I think you may have a point about image, but as I'm already seeing from the couple of comments on your story, I don't think it accounts for the majority of people's negative perceptions.

On the image: The highest levels of the NRA focus on what's happening at the highest levels of government, and in those circles the suit-n-tie is still required, so they've continued wearing that uniform. Realize that much of the communication to the membership from the top is also expected to be seen by, and influence, the highest levels of government. I don't see any change happening here—dreadful memories of Jimmy Carter's fireside chats are dancing in my head.

On other causes: Gun owners are pretty independent folks, and it's very difficult to get them to march together. Add a little misunderstanding—or a healthy paranoia towards large organizations—and it's easy for the NRA to come out on the wrong end of someone's opinion.

For example, the first "Anonymous" comment attributes Zumbo's and Cooper's problems to the NRA, while the reality is the NRA had nothing to do with either incident. Zumbo wrote on the Outdoor Life website that anyone who used black rifles was a terrorist, and USA Today reported that Cooper gave to Obama's presidential campaign at a time when many people were concerned that Obama was going to be very anti-gun.

Zumbo's aspersions against all good gun owners who happen to enjoy a rifle he doesn't received the backlash they deserved—but a backlash that was driven, not by the NRA, but by modern Internet communications. Similarly, Cooper's actions were seen as backstabbing and threatened the viability of the company he built. To continue as a viable business, Cooper Arms was forced to ask for his resignation; to do otherwise would invite the kind of backlash that was the downfall of the old, British-owned Smith & Wesson. Again, none of this backlash was orchestrated or promoted by the NRA, despite "Anonymous'" perception to the contrary.

Both "Anonymous" and Tovar decry the fact that the NRA works hard to present a consistent message. I don't see how the NRA can be effective otherwise. The NRA isn't a debating society. It's an organization who's members pay it to be the most effective advocate possible for our Second Amendment rights. A disjointed, uncommitted message would be like throwing red meat in front of the wolfish anti-gunners. "See!" they'd cry, "even the NRA can't agree that [name your favorite infringement here] isn't common sense gun control." If that ever happens, all gun owners lose.

And, as I'm wont to do, I'll remind folks that the NRA is nothing more than an organization of members. If you don't like the way the NRA is doing things, become a member and vote to change they way they do things! Remember it wasn't so long ago that the NRA was an ineffectual advocate, hiding its head in the sand. Marion Hammer got fed up with it and revolutionized the organization during the 1998 Philadelphia convention. You could do the same.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Blake's point about the consistency of message needed for an organization to be effective is a good one.

I'll have to give this more thought, but I think my overall aversion to the NRA comes not so much from the fact that it is internally consistent as from the fact it (A) seems hostile to anything but the most conservative political beliefs and most sweeping interpretations of the 2nd Amendment, and (B) disseminates messages that seem to celebrate not only firearms but violence (the T-shirt reading “Give ‘Em Both Barrels -- It’s Your Right!” is a good example).

Blake Sobiloff said...

Er, and a quick correction: I meant 1977 in Cincinnati, not 1998 Philly.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I'm a gun owner and (nascent) hunter, and my objection to the NRA is straightforward: I think assault weapons have no place in the hands of American civilians.

It's not the suits. It's not the PR. It's not the constancy of the message. It's the content of the message. I simply disagree.

Blake Sobiloff said...

Tamar: Do you mean true assault weapons, i.e. rifles capable of firing fully-automatic like a machine gun? Or, do you mean those scary-looking semi-automatic black rifles?

Galen Geer said...

The broad sweep of comments in reply to my last blog is excellent and represents diverse opinions. Thank you all! However, with the exception of Anonymous, we haven’t addressed the question of what would it take for you to join the NRA?
Tovar suggests that the NRA does not tolerate “dissent, political diversity, and civil debate [which] are crucial to a healthy democracy.” Actually, I’ve often wondered about that myself. I do know there is debate at the board meetings and the members are encouraged to speak out at the membership meeting (which can become quite raucous). When I’ve wanted to contact NRA headquarters to register my displeasure, however, I’ve found it to be an exercise in frustration so I’ve turned to members of the board to voice my complaints.
Anonymous, you do occupy a unique position in being both right and wrong about the Zumbo affair. The NRA did not lead the charge against Zumbo but they did join the bandwagon that was intent on crucifying him in that they cancelled their contract with him, a move that did hurt the NRA. I do not have much information on the Cooper case.
Blake (and others) if you go to you can order a copy of the issue of “The Pines Review” in which I published an essay exploring the “Zumbo Incident.” Or, if you want to read it online you can go to and read it.
Blake’s point that the NRA’s highest levels function at the highest levels of government are true, but aren’t we comparing apples to oranges? My argument is to the general population and that by the appearance of the “suit” (just for descriptive purposes) when appearing among the public there is a mistrust generated among a significant portion of the nonmember gun owning public because of the image carried by the suit, and at the opposite end of the spectrum the grunge look alienates a significant portion because it seems to connect to a disreputable element of society. I still believe the NRA must undertake an image change—and soon—or risk losing connection to a political base that will be crucial in the upcoming election.
But, what of the NRA’s entrenchment on some issues? Is there, in fact, room for compromise on the Second Amendment? I think if we look back in our history we will see that we have made a number of compromises on the Second Amendment. We’ve backed up on fully automatic weapons, sawed off shotguns, and on other issues and I have not found any of these to be significant threats to the Second Amendment. However, when we begin to get into the question of contemporary semi-automatic firearms are we losing perspective? Except for the magazines the difference in the firearms in question is mostly cosmetic, unlike the M1, M14 and other military semi-auto firearms, with which the operating system is fundamentally consistent with civilian semi-autos. I’ve hunted with an M1 and an M14, and killed deer with each one. As a Marine I trained with the M1 and I carried an M14 in Vietnam, until it was replaced by the M16 (a weapon I still loathe). So, if the NRA draws a line in the sand on the semi-auto question is it that entrenchment that is so repugnant or something else? Is Tovar closer to the core of the debate when he suggests that there is something unsettling about slogans that seem to celebrate violence? Out of curiosity I went to the NRA website and found the Tee shirt Tovar mentioned. Frankly, I cannot disagree with him. It’s the grunge side that a lot of people do find offensive, and not always because of a connection to the NRA but because it seems to be some sort of a collaborative statement of contempt by the wearer. According to the sales blurb the statement about barrels comes from someone’s father who always told him to “give ‘em both barrels.” More likely it was, “if you can’t hit ‘em with both barrels—you can’t shoot!”

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Galen, and for welcoming the diversity of perspectives.

I'm honestly not sure what it would take for me to join the NRA. And I certainly can't speak for the many gun-owners and hunters I know who are not NRA members. Some of it may be, as you suggest, a matter of image.

The violence aspect is an interesting one. I know a number of people who value firearms as "tools" (for pest control around farm fields, for hunting, etc) -- and who would, if necessary, use guns in defense of themselves, their families, etc -- but who are deeply uncomfortable with the apparent celebration of firearms as "weapons" for use against other humans.

Political image is also important, I think. (Incidentally, I'm an independent. I can find things to agree with on both the Left and the Right. I guess I might be, as one friend refers to himself, "socially liberal and fiscally conservative.") In any case, I know plenty of gun owners -- including some former military folks -- who abhor the rhetorical flavor of pro-gun politics.

Perhaps someday I'll set aside the time to look closely at the NRA -- its website, rhetoric, and so on -- and try to get a clearer sense of what it is that fails to appeal to (or actively disturbs) some of us. It's an interesting topic, to be sure.

By the way, I know people who will not make any public comment about the NRA, on this or any other forum. They are hunters and gun-owners who are involved in the outdoor/hunting industry in one way or another and who -- very specifically -- do not want to end up blacklisted. Zumbo and Cooper are on their minds.

Kirk Mantay said...

I'll tell you why right now. A few neighborhoods away from me is a gun store (where I used to do business) that was previously owned by an NRA board member (now his 93 year old mother "runs it" ha ha, because legally he cannot). I'll tell you why - and it gets to your question.

ATF raided the shop and recorded almost a thousand illegal gun sales. The shop was at the top of the national list for guns sold, then used in violent crimes.

The anti-gun crowd used this guy as a fundraiser, as an example of why guns should be further restricted in our state, and possibly made totally illegal.

So, your NRA membership dollars were used to pay NRA legal counsel hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend him - basically an admitted firearms felon - in court. They delayed proceedings for YEARS and finally when the guy was convicted, the NRA counsel spent MORE of your dollars securing a sentence that included allowing him to turn over the store to his mom (who can barely even walk, let alone operate a storefront), AND sell all the guns currently in the store as his "personal collection."

All the while, between conviction (remember - now a convicted firearms trafficker with an ATF-revoked license) and sentencing, this guy was running around speaking at NRA fundraising events, celebrity shoots, and so on. REPRESENTING THE NRA!

Then, after he became a convicted felon and the ATF revoked his license, the NRA ELECTED HIM TO THEIR BOARD.

In the hunting rights and gun rights world, we don't need any more friends like that.

Kirk Mantay said...

By the way, search "Sandy Abrams NRA" and you can see for yourself.

His "good deeds looking out for legal gun owners" are well documented.

Good riddance.

Kirk Mantay said...

What would it take for me to join the NRA (my brothers are both members)?

Dissassociation from known criminals that happen to be politically or financially influential within the firearms community.

You can't keep preaching that "guns don't equal crime" when you have convicted felons on your board!

Albert A Rasch said...

There is another issue that I have personally seen. Among many in the "Tea Party" movement, support of any incumbant, aspecially some one in the D party, is enough to brand you a traiterous anti American.

The NRA is a single issue PAC. It only works on that one subject. As long as the politician is pro gun rights, the NRA does not care what other beliefs are held.

I'm an NRA member, and I understand that, and accept it as part of the bargain.

Please excuse the misspellings. I don't know why the devil I have been having such a hard time with the English language...

Best regards,
Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
The Sinister Al-Qaeda/Animal Rights Group Connection!

Kirk Mantay said...

That's true, I've seen that backlash on hunting forums (I think Harry Reid or someone similar in the southwest is NRA-endorsed).

I also have no problem with this part of it. As you said - a single issue PAC. Really not different than DU, TU, NWTF, etc.

They will support (with press releases, photo ops, etc) those elected officials that support them. Be it Dick Cheney or Rahm Emanuel! If they have a $6 million check for Trout Unlimited, guess what!

Galen Geer said...

Great Stuff! I am going to post my comments on the regular blog. glg

Holly Heyser said...

Very belatedly: I'm a member of the NRA because I want to be counted among gun owners and believers in the 2nd Amendment.

That said, I refuse to respond to the NRA's hyperbolic pleas for more more more money to fight this that and the other thing. Not that I believe there aren't real threats, but as someone who's covered politics for newspapers, I know the difference between real threats and ones that are merely fundraising opportunities. But people who haven't been paid to follow politics can't necessarily make that distinction (not saying they're stupid; just saying that like most Americans, they have no firsthand knowledge of the process), so a lot of the hype NRA sends out gets passed around as gospel.

The problem is that the hyperbole makes us look like a bunch of paranoid ninnies sometimes. When I tell non-hunters about what I do, most of them are 100 percent fine with hunting, but they think I'm a moron to associate with the NRA.

And yeah, the lockstep thing is irritating as hell. When I decided to switch to non-lead ammo and I blogged about it - clearly stating that it's a personal choice, not something I believe should be law - I was attacked by an NRA goon (volunteer, not paid staffer) for being an "appeaser." I don't much care for a-holes who think that devotion to the 2nd Amendment means giving up rights guaranteed by the 1st.

Josh said...

I will never join the NRA. Ever.

They have created a political reality where only Republicans can support gun ownership. They have helped foster an environment that endangers law enforcement. They continue to misrepresent the notion of firearms in society.

Glock30Owner said...

I'm a gun owner and an gun rights activist. My problems with the NRA (Negotiate our Right Away) is the absolute caving to the gun control crowd.

When the NRA starts to believe, really believe in "shall not be infringed", I might join them again.

Until then the dupe of my enemy is my enemy.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Me and my wife are hunters and love the range. The NRA is all about money. They don't care about good people that own guns.they seem to care more abouts sales then safety. Its all about money. I have been a conservative my whole life but our fore fathers would not image the craziness that the tea party talk. Its sad what this country is turning into. We need to work together not separate ourselves. I'm old and i remember the last it was like this, the late 50s and 60s. Not good for us all.