That the Republican Party is now wholly owned by the gun lobby was witnessed not only by the eagerness of Pence, Trump and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson to pander in person at the gathering self-described as “14 acres of guns & gear.” Other would-be 2024 GOP nominees — among them, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) — felt obligated to bow before the gun worshipers by video.
The nonsense floated in Indianapolis — based on the idea that our national addiction to high-powered weaponry has nothing to do with America’s unique mass shooting problem — speaks to a deep ailment in our democracy. It has both partisan and (perverse) philosophical roots.
The GOP’s conversion to gun absolutism is the heart of the problem. But politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It often follows from cultural and moral innovations.
For roughly four decades, American conservatism has identified firearms as a marker of a manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism and gun ownership as a right more important than any other. As DeSantis said in his video, the right to bear arms is “the foundation on which all our other rights rest” and essential to Americans’ “ability to rule themselves.”
“Why do Joe Biden and the liberals want our guns?” asked Gov. Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota, another speaker. “Because it will make it easier for them to violate all our other rights.”
It comes down to a variant of the old Maoist slogan: All liberty grows out of the barrel of a gun. When Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told a White House rally before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, “Let’s have trial by combat,” he was speaking for a sentiment that runs deep in the gun rights movement.
A particularly dramatic example of how opposition to gun regulation is increasingly linked to efforts to undermine democracy itself: the Tennessee House Republicans’ recent vote to expel two duly elected legislators for protesting against the body’s inaction on guns after the Nashville school massacre.
It was no accident that the two since-reinstated representatives, Democrats Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, are not only both young and Black but also represent urban areas — Jones is from Nashville, Pearson from Memphis. Republican legislators, in Tennessee as elsewhere, regularly diminish the power of the big metro areas through gerrymandering and state overrides of local control.
Republican legislators may tout states’ rights, but with many cities in red states growing into significant islands of Democratic influence (and support for gun regulation), local control is not part of the GOP’s program.
Undercutting the ability of voters to cast ballots is another habit of those who privilege the Second Amendment over all the others. As Politico’s Kathy Gilsinan reported, Tennessee’s election laws allow gun permits as voter IDs but not college student identifications. There is no waiting time to buy a gun, but citizens have to register at least 30 days before an election. “It is absolutely easier to get a gun than to vote in Tennessee,” Democratic state Sen. Charlane Oliver told Gilsinan.
Our attitudes toward guns are often ascribed to our frontier past and a veneration of the Old West. But in truth, radical opposition to gun regulation is a relatively recent development, even in the NRA. Founded in 1871 by two Union Civil War veterans and a former New York Times reporter, the organization was initially devoted to improving urban marksmanship.
The group was long open to sensible rules around weapons, and the NRA helped Franklin D. Roosevelt draft the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act. It was not until 1977 that the NRA was engulfed by extreme ideologues. Our country, including the Supreme Court, thus embarked on a dangerous new path.
The good news in this story is that radical opposition to sensible gun laws is not embedded in the American character. It’s the product of an ideology that overtook a less dogmatic form of conservatism and seized control of a political party.
With Americans increasingly angry over mass shootings — the latest outrage came Saturday with the killing of four at a teen’s birthday party in Alabama — the era of gun absolutism could finally be over, if the popular will on guns is allowed to prevail. But this depends on defending the democracy that so many, at the Indianapolis gathering and in Tennessee, deeply mistrust.