Is Perpetuating Threat a Viable Strategy? The Case of the National Rifle Association

By Trent Steidley

The usefulness of threat in understanding social movements has informed a wide range work on topics like labor strikes, anti-union policies, the creation of ex-gay “therapy” centers and same-sex marriage bans. Naturally, social movements can use actual threats as a powerful mechanism to support mobilization. Left unanswered though is this: can a social movement that has mobilized in response to threat continue to mobilize around it even as objective risk declines?

Enter the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun rights movement. While there are many reasons Americans join the NRA, the primary reason most members join is because they want to protect the 2nd Amendment. Since 1977, the NRA has spearheaded a successful social movement for gun rights using its membership and resources to challenge and change laws at both the state and federal level. Scott Melzer’s study of the NRA’s framing strategies and its membership notes that despite the impressive successes of the NRA and its members in political and legal battles, the organization relies on framing threats to gun rights to continue ginning up member support and mobilization (former NRA insider Richard Feldman also argues as much).

The strategy has been effective, the NRA’s membership has grown since the 1980’s. Figure 1 here uses a proxy for NRA membership to demonstrate changes in the NRA’s membership from 1982-2017. (Note: since the NRA doesn’t provide public historical records of its membership scholars have relied on a proxy using counts of NRA magazine subscriptions to American Hunter, American Rifleman, America’s 1st Freedom, and Shooting Illustrated, all of which are available only to NRA members. I obtained these data directly from the Alliance for Audited Media).

Figure 1

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There are a handful of major spikes in NRA membership evident from these data. From 1992-1994, 1999-2000, 2008-2010, and 2012-onward. Interestingly, these are all cathartic moments for the NRA and the gun rights movement. In 1992-1994 the Clinton administration was working to pass new gun control laws such as the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. In 1999-2000 the NRA reached a fever-pitch of mobilization against the candidacy of Al Gore. The Presidency of Barack Obama also corresponded with an increase in NRA membership during the first two years of the Obama administration followed by a large spike after Obama’s reelection in 2012 that was sustained into 2016. Interestingly, periods with Republican administrations (1982-1992 and 2001-2008) saw NRA membership largely decline or stagnate. From a political opportunity perspective, the threat response of NRA mobilization is not a hard case to make. Democratic presidents are much more likely to advocate and sign new gun control laws, mobilizing gun supporters to join the NRA with membership declines once cathartic moments pass.

This brings us the current moment. Using a perpetual strategy of threat framing to sustain mobilization is not without risk. Continuing to claim that gun rights are threatened, when no real threat is present, may cause supporters to see the NRA’s claims as “crying wolf”. Major victories for gun rights such as the widespread adoption of concealed carry laws and the DC v Heller Supreme Court case (which confirmed the 2nd Amendment as an individual right to own guns) suggests that gun rights are more secure than ever before. The NRA sits in a position of strength with membership levels at nearly the highest level they have ever been, well above 3.5 million (but short of the NRA’s claimed 5 million). By historical trends, we might anticipate that the supporters of the gun rights movement, writ large, would recognize that the election of a Republican President, a Republican Congress, and two new Supreme Court Justices places the gun rights movement in a uniquely secure position. In terms of making a barroom bet from the data in Figure 1, we would expect NRA members to sense the receding threat, and NRA membership rates to begin declining. Bad news for the NRA as an organization.

Yet, if one turns to the NRA’s current media messaging, the threat has never been greater. The NRA continues to frame gun rights as under threat, but the threat now comes from leftists, socialists, and liberal democrats. While the NRA has always been sympathetic towards a broader conservative platform, the NRA’s rhetoric has now become openly hostile to political views beyond guns. Using the online platform NRA TV, commentator Dana Loesch refers to an ominous “they” and claims that deceitful media threatens the safety of law-abiding Americans with protests and disrespect towards the President. Grant Stinchfield likewise spends time talking not about guns but about communist tendencies from Democratic candidates. Wayne La Pierre, the longtime executive vice-president of the NRA recently addressed the shift in the NRA’s framing at the February 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference to explain why the NRA has now become as a stalwart for all conservative principles.

You know, some people out there think that the NRA should just stick to its Second Amendment agenda and not talk about all of our freedoms. But real freedom requires protection of all of our rights. And the Second Amendment isn’t worth its own words in a country where all of our other individual freedoms are destroyed.  

The next month’s issue of America’s 1st Freedom then ran with this cover.

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Note: America’s 1st Freedom, an NRA publication, March 2018 Issue. Image 1 Source

Socialist, leftists, the resistance, media elites, ANTIFA, the fake news media, and more, these are the threats the NRA now pits itself against. The NRA has learned that threat is the most powerful tool they have to grow their ranks. Rather than experience a slow decline in its membership (who pay the dues that make up the bulk of the NRA’s revenues) like it did the last time there was a Republican administration and Congress, the NRA appears to have found what the “real” threat now is to sustain its mobilization.

Will the strategy work? Does the NRA manage to sustain, or even grow its membership using this new framing of socialist/leftist threats? Does continued victory for gun rights risk the NRA having its threat claims becoming viewed as “crying wolf?” Only time will tell (a unsatisfying answer, I know). But from a movements perspective, the case of gun rights is about to test whether or not about threat can be used to continue mobilization, even when all plausible threats to a social movement’s cause appear to be absent.

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