The NRA vs. the Second Amendment

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice
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As a civil libertarian and a gun owner, I understand all too well that tragedies like the Newtown mass murder invariably mean a new wave of assaults on our most fundamental rights as human beings. 9/11 brought us the TSA, the Patriot Act, and the War on Terror, and every mass shooting brings out the same authoritarian coalition calling for an end to video games, movies, secular education, and, of course, guns. I have written in the past about why we should cling most dearly to our rights in times of crisis, but have only recently caught on to a much more deceptive (perhaps unwitting) foe of our right to bear arms: the National Rifle Association.

I admit, the suggestion seems ludicrous on its face. After all, the NRA ostensibly represents millions of gun owners and wields immense pro-gun lobbying power in Washington. But it is precisely this perception of the NRA as the end-all, be-all of Second Amendment advocacy, when combined with a perpetuated misunderstanding about the primary functions of both the NRA and the Second Amendment, that makes the organization a threat to gun liberty.

In fact, the NRA has quite a history of supporting restrictions on our fundamental right to bear arms. The NRA supported the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 (the first comprehensive federal restrictions on the right to bear arms). The NRA supported gun-control measures throughout the 1960s and continues to do so to this day. It even supported Mitt Romney’s candidacy despite Gov. Romney’s horrid record on gun rights (support which Gov. Romney was always quick to point out in defense of his record). Wayne LaPierre, the current CEO and executive VP of the NRA, testified in 1999 in support of the Federal Gun Free School Zones Act and many other federal violations of the Second Amendment. In short, the NRA’s history is the history of a group more concerned with protecting the commercial viability of the gun industry than protecting the principle of the Second Amendment.

So when Mr. LaPierre took to his massive national platform last week to respond to the horror in Newtown and the subsequent attacks on gun rights, his speech left little doubt what the NRA is worried about. Mr. LaPierre blamed the weather, he blamed the media, he blamed video games, he lashed out at every target he could think of in a transparent effort to deflect, rather than engage, the anti-gun argument. He then insisted that the government should arm hundreds of thousands of government agents and put them in every school in America.

This was not the reasoned, principled argument of a scrupulous believer in the Second Amendment; it was the nonsensical, desperate plea of a charlatan trying to defend his product at the expense of any principle at stake.

This tired, all-but-scripted “NRA vs. the Democrats” song and dance has certainly stimulated gun sales (surely and ironically to the chagrin of the stimulator-in-chief), but does it protect the Second Amendment? While sending hither swarms of newly armed government agents amongst our children may increase demand for firearms, allow gun manufacturers to secure choice government contracts, and appease authoritarians whose peace of mind is directly correlated to how much power the state wields, such a prescription is plainly anathema to true advocates of the Second Amendment.

This conflict flows from the fact that while government arms deals, shooting sports, and hunting are the lifeblood of the firearms manufacturing industry, those are not the reasons that our Founders saw fit to explicitly acknowledge each citizen’s right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution. While the Second Amendment certainly and incidentally protects the ability of people to hunt and enjoy their weapons, the true purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure the capability of the citizens to withstand the onslaught of a tyrannical government.

From the perspective of gun manufacturers, “we have a right to bear arms in case we have to shoot the agents of our government” is a rather inconvenient truth on which to capitalize given our current pro-state political and social environment, and so the gun lobby is tempted to satisfy itself by focusing solely on the tangential aspects of the right to bear arms. The danger here is twofold. First, it removes the primary and philosophical underpinning of the Second Amendment entirely out of the discussion, which allows for consequentialist arguments about practicality and compromise to dominate the landscape. Second, because of the immense power wielded by the NRA, its steadfast refusal to focus on the real purpose of the Second Amendment relegates the philosophy of the Constitution to “fringe” status in the political discourse. Gun rights advocates are duped into following the NRA’s lead, and anti-gun advocates are given a false impression about what the debate is about in the first place.

The NRA has repeatedly chosen to resolve this tension in favor of the financial incentives of the gun lobby, and that decision has had a corrosive effect on the gun rights debate in America.

That’s why authoritarians like Piers Morgan get to grandstand against guns unmolested by the fact that the true reason we are entitled to keep and bear arms is so that, unlike Her Majesty’s subject Mr. Morgan, Americans have the chance to live by no man’s leave.

That’s why so few even blink an eye at a supposed “advocate” of the Second Amendment like Mr. LaPierre recommending the drastic expansion of the police state. The debate has completely run off its philosophical rails, and the NRA is largely responsible for that (much more responsible than video games, music videos, and hurricanes, at least).

This is not to say that the NRA is worthless, or that its threat to gun liberty is even intentional. I do, however, exhort people on both sides of the gun rights debate to stop using the NRA as the authoritative voice for Second Amendment advocacy. Insofar as the financial interests of the gun lobby overlap the mandates of the Second Amendment, the NRA is and has long been a force for good. But when the interests of the industry and the philosophy of the Second Amendment conflict, the NRA has long chosen its pocketbook over its principles.

The Second Amendment, like all of our rights, deserves a better spokesman than that.

Adam Bates received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Miami (FL) in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan in 2011.