As NRA meets, Great Gun Debate intensifies America's culture war

Both sides in the debate over gun policy are indulging in stereotypes and name-calling, fueled by a distrust bred from previous culture war fights. As the NRA convention continues this weekend, are red and blue America really so far apart?

Adrees Latif/Reuters
National Rifle Association members bow their heads in prayer before the start of the Annual Meeting of Members in Houston, Texas on May 4. Organizers expect some 70,000 attendees at the 142nd NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston, which began on Friday and continues through Sunday.

Outside and inside the NRA convention in Houston this weekend, Americans will witness a central clash over the future of the Second Amendment.

To proponents of stricter gun control, some of whom will protest outside the convention hall on Saturday, “common sense” proposals such as expanded background checks on gun buyers could immediately improve safety in a country where handguns are involved in about 30,000 deaths a year, two-thirds of them suicides.

But to many of America’s gun owners, some 70,000 of whom have also flocked to Houston, any measure of additional federal gun control is tantamount to a Trojan horse in a broader culture war – a way not only to suppress gun rights, but also to conduct a sneak attack on attitudes, viewpoints, and a lifestyle that they hold dear, all in the name of "gun safety." 

That cultural divide seems only to be growing, as NRA members gather this weekend and as Vice President Joe Biden vowed Friday to try again on expanded background checks. Each side seems intent on playing up the indignity of the other's position – some indulging in name-calling and flame-throwing – perhaps with an eye to rousing their political allies ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, when control of Congress will be at stake. The upshot is a debate that intensifies regional splits and serves to exacerbate the red/blue political divide, say some analysts.

At the NRA convention, the message to gun owners so far has been that they and their values are under siege. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told convention-goers Friday that “the lamestream media just plain doesn’t get you.” The NRA’s new first vice president, James Porter, noted that the political clash over gun control is a “cultural fight on the 10 guarantees,” a reference to the Bill of Rights that makes up the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.

In a video preceding his remarks at the NRA convention, Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas fires an assault rifle, then takes his finger off the trigger, removes a magazine, and gives a John Wayne glare past the camera. Bounding onto the stage, Governor Perry yelled “Welcome to Texas!” before conflating dislike of guns with dislike of people who like guns: "You can almost set your watch for how long it takes for people who hate guns, who hate gun owners, to start a new campaign" after a mass shooting, he said.

On the pro-gun-control side, meanwhile, a public "shaming campaign" is under way to dress down senators who in April voted against certain gun-control measures.

In New Hampshire, Erica Lafferty, daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung, chastised Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) for her vote against the legislation. “You had mentioned, that day you voted, owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm," Ms. Lafferty said during a town hall meeting in Warren, N.H. "I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't more important than that."

Other gun control activists have been less reserved, characterizing their opponents on the issue as "gun nuts."

Senators who voted against gun control “need to know they have defied the will of the people, and that their cold calculation that there is more intensity on the gun-nut side is wrong,” Cliff Schecter, a liberal strategist who advocates tougher gun laws, told The Hill newspaper. “We are in the process of showing them that. And we intend to continue.”

In recent years, the red-blue political divide has appeared to deepen amid differences on issues such as abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, and even taxes. Gun policy is the latest issue to reinforce stereotypes crafted by those earlier cultural flash points.

“The point is that the red/blue political split doesn’t get in the way of gun control. Rather, the cultural divide over guns is a driver of the country’s red/blue political split,” demographic analyst Dante Chinni wrote last month in The Wall Street Journal. “Where guns are concerned, [Americans] live in different places and different realities.”

It's true that in the South and the Midwest there are more guns per capita and a larger share of the populace favors gun rights than in the West and the Northeast. Those regional divides are apparent in the new gun laws that have been enacted since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December: At least a dozen Southern and Midwestern states eased gun restrictions, while New York, Connecticut, and Colorado strengthened gun controls.

But among the actual citizenry, the divide over guns is not as deep as the activists and politicians paint it to be, polls indicate. Yes, majorities in the West and Northeast favor more gun controls, while majorities in the South and Midwest do not. But asked by Pew whether they favor gun rights, only 50 percent of Midwesterners said yes, as did 49 percent of Southerners. A Pew poll, moreover, also found that only about 1 in 5 Americans is actually angry about the Senate vote in April not to expand background checks.

Still, to see the activists on either side try to one-up each other in the stereotypes battle is to behold a completely different reality.

Take an essay in The Daily Beast last week, in which Bronx-born culture critic Lee Siegel used the gun rights fight as one reason for the South to “Go ahead, secede already!”

With secession, a “red-state nation, giddy with new mobility, could make the 1958 Chevy its official car … [and] it could arm all of its citizens, and thus relieve itself of the financial burden of maintaining law enforcement for its citizens,” he wrote. The North, he added, could be unshackled from its Bible-crazed, knuckle-dragger anchors, to venture forth to establish the America envisioned by the enlightened: “Universal health care. No guns. Strong unions … high revenues from a fair tax structure.… In short, a society on a par with most of the rest of the industralized world.”

On the other side is the depiction of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cofounder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a major funder of the gun-control campaign, as Mr. "Nanny State." As Ms. Palin said Friday, he and others like him are "bitterly clinging to the notion that the government must control the people in all aspects of life."

It's much too early to tell whether political vilification over gun control and gun rights, so on display around the NRA convention, will pull the electorate one way or the other heading into next year's midterms. But whenever policy becomes so entwined with emotions and cultural identity, common ground can become maddeningly elusive, students of US history suggest.

The dynamics of "tying guns to the identity of the country sort of becomes a way to avoid debating who we are and what we will do as a society, and how we will deal with certain kinds of problems," Carole Emberton, a historian at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, told the Monitor earlier this year.

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