05/06/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2013

Culture War, Not Gun Control: The Real Reason the NRA Matters So Much

The NRA may actually be right about guns. As I discovered researching a recent essay for The Morning News, gun violence is very likely more a symptom of an American disease than the root cause.

But this doesn't mean the NRA is good or justified in its nasty campaigns to expand "gun rights" as aggressively as possible. In fact, they do as much as any group to perpetuate the culture wars and societal divides that lead to the United States having a murder rate far, far higher than any comparable developed country.

I've come to the conclusion that something called social capital -- and the lack thereof -- is behind the American propensity for violence, and I would argue that since the 17th century Americans have built a society that is not supposed to be united. It has been a "failure in nation building," as historian Randolph Roth puts it, referring to post-Civil War America.

From my story:

According to this theory, communities with low social cohesion get caught in a vicious cycle of violence destroying social capital, which leads to more violence and so on. There are fewer checks on bad behavior, families get broken, jobs disappear, schools go bad, and kids get lost.

So what comes first: the murders or the low social capital? It seems intuitive to say that unstable communities would lead to more violence. But what if a cultural embrace of violence--and we're not talking about the right-wing talking point on our "culture of violence" here--is actually at the root of the killing instead?

So what's this got to do with the NRA? Well, the United States is changing. It's been changing for a long time -- with the rise of feminism, globalization and our future as a majority-minority country. An African American president just got reelected, gay marriage is going mainstream and the economy is both struggling and transforming. And all this scares a whole lot of people who used to feel quite in control of "their" America.

In 1977, in a decade of malaise and a rising conservative backlash, a core of "gun-rights radicals" in the NRA carried out the "Cincinnati Revolt" and took over what had been a more or less mainstream organization. The rest is history. From a Washington Post story earlier this year:

The NRA didn't get swept up in the culture wars of the past century so much as it helped invent them -- and kept inflaming them. In the process, the NRA overcame tremendous internal tumult and existential crises, developed an astonishing grass-roots operation and became closely aligned with the Republican Party.

Examples of NRA divisiveness are legion, but here's a good example. Even as crime rates continue a decades-long fall -- which should be the NRA's actual argument against gun control -- Wayne LaPierre writes an essay titled "Stand and Fight" in the Daily Caller warning readers of an apocalyptic future:

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face -- not just maybe. It's not paranoia to buy a gun. It's survival.

And just last week, NRA First Vice President James Porter, and incoming NRA president, spoke to a meeting before the group's annual convention in Texas. From an AP article on his comments:

"This is not a battle about gun rights," Porter said, calling it "a culture war."

But the NRA is vulnerable, even in the midst of their triumphal talk. A report by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy found that NRA backing had little effect for candidates at the last election. And it's heartening to see gun control advocates calling politicians on the carpet for their NRA support. It's heartening to hear about people going to town hall meetings and getting engaged in the topic.

For, again, more than the actual gun control, this kind of involvement is exactly what we need to build a more compassionate, and less violent, country.

More from my essay in The Morning News:

This is not a liberal or conservative thing. It is a citizen thing, and this act of making others' conditions our own is not foreign to the American experience. We don't all have to get along, and we don't have to sit in a big circle and sing Kumbaya. But we do have to agree to disagree through reasonable and rational channels, rather than with the apocalyptic brutality -- both physical and emotional -- that marks so much of American history.

To read my full essay called "Bad Land," please go here.