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Dennis A. Henigan

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For the NRA, It's All About Fear

Posted: 05/04/11 01:47 PM ET

From all reports, at its annual convention last weekend in Pittsburgh, the National Rifle Association, as usual, cloaked itself in patriotic themes, claimed special kinship with the Founders, and portrayed itself as the true protector of American values. There was much talk of "freedom". More than anything else, however, the NRA gatherings are celebrations of fear.

The NRA is the most accomplished marketer of fear in American political life.

There is, first, the fear of imminent violent attack. I'm not talking about a healthy concern for personal and family security. The NRA, and its gun industry patrons, need average Americans to believe that the threat of attack is constant and pervasive; that we are at serious risk all the time and everywhere we go. It's not enough to have a gun in the home for self-defense; you need multiple guns throughout your home so you're never too far from your gun. It's not enough to carry a concealed weapon outside your home; the law must allow you to carry it virtually anywhere an attack might conceivably occur, into restaurants, bars, sports stadiums, community centers and churches.

Indeed, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre devoted much of his convention speech to reciting statistics about our continuing violent crime problem (which is interesting, given the NRA's competing message that crime rates are down because states have made it easier to carry concealed weapons). According to the gun lobby, even our college campuses (with murder rates 44 times lower than the national rate) are sufficiently unsafe to justify forcing universities and colleges to allow concealed weapons on campus. Legislation to enact this absurd idea into law fortunately has failed 51 times in 27 states in recent years, the latest being Governor Jan Brewer's recent veto of NRA-supported legislation in Arizona.

Second, there is the fear of government. The flip-side of all the NRA's talk of freedom is that the government is an ever-present threat to our freedom. The NRA has long maintained that the Second Amendment is not primarily about allowing individuals to pursue hunting or the shooting sports, or even for personal self-defense, but rather to allow the armed citizenry to resist abuses of power by government officials. As an NRA lawyer once put it, "the founders sought to protect arms from government interference, because those same arms might be needed to protect the people from government." In the NRA's world, our freedoms ultimately are ensured not by the right to vote, or to peacefully protest government policies, or by an independent judiciary providing legal redress against government abuse, but rather by armed citizens, constantly on guard for any sign that the time for violent resistance has arrived. Tragically, some, like Timothy McVeigh, not only internalize the fear, but act on it.

Third, the NRA never stops promoting the fear that government prohibition of guns is looming behind every attempt to impose restrictions on firearms. Every proponent of sensible gun restrictions is labeled a "gun banner". Over and over again, the NRA invokes some version of the "slippery slope to confiscation" argument, as it did a number of years ago when it wrote of "the plan" which is "now obvious to all who would see: First Step, enact a nationwide firearms waiting period law. Second Step, when the waiting period doesn't reduce crime, and it won't, enact a nationwide registration law. Final Step, confiscate all the registered firearms." The group's fear-mongering seems undiminished by the Supreme Court's recognition of a constitutional right to have a gun in the home. After all, the Supreme Court is part of the government, and the government must be feared, not trusted.

On the eve of the convention, the Violence Policy Center issued a report suggesting that the NRA's fear tactics may be resonating with a declining percentage of Americans. VPC reported the latest figures from the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago, showing that the incidence of household gun ownership is at its lowest since the Survey began measuring gun ownership in 1973. In 2010, only 32% of households reported having a gun in the home, a sharp drop from the peak figure of 54% in 1977.

This remarkable decline sharply contradicts NRA and gun industry propaganda, which uses every imagined threat to gun ownership to feed the story (dutifully reported by the media) that more and more Americans are buying guns while they still can. It is true that the gun lobby's fear tactics periodically create a spike in gun sales (as occurred after President Obama's election, for example), but it is now clear that, even during those spikes, the primary purchasers of those guns are people who already own guns. Thus, the number of guns owned by the average gun owner is increasing, while the percentage of households with guns continues to plummet. Despite the intermittent periods of gun-buying frenzy, it seems undeniable that more and more American households are deciding against gun ownership.

This is very good news for public health and safety. Research shows that a high rate of household gun ownership is associated with higher rates of accidental gun deaths, higher rates of suicide and gun suicide, and higher rates of homicide and gun homicide. The continuing national decline in gun ownership is unquestionably a lifesaving trend.

I have no doubt that the gun lobby will not deviate from its strategy of promoting guns through fear. I also have no doubt that fewer and fewer Americans are buying what the NRA is selling.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).