The NRA is no joke, either. Claiming gun ownership as a civil liberty protected by the Second Amendment, it opposes virtually all gun control legislation. It claims more than 4 million members, has an annual budget of more than US$300 million and spent almost US$3 million last year — when there were no nationwide elections — on lobbying.
The Second Amendment to the US constitution reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
There has long been a dispute about whether “the people” described refers to individuals or the individual states, but there is no disagreement about its broader intent, which is to provide the constitutional means to mount a military defense against a tyrannical government.
“It’s about independence and freedom,” explains NRA member David Britt. “When you have a democratic system and an honorable people then you trust the citizens.”
Britt, an affable man in his 60s, does not lend himself easily to caricature. Elsewhere in the room, one T-shirt quotes Thessalonians 3:10 (“If any would not work neither should he eat”) on the back and “I hate welfare” on the front. Another T-shirt announces: “Christian, American, Heterosexual, Pro-Gun, Conservative. Any Questions?”
Britt is more understated, conservative and more likely to water at the mouth talking about barbecue in his native Memphis than foam at the mouth over a Fox News talking point. He does not fetishize guns, but fondly recalls his grandfather giving him his first rifle when he was seven.
“He said it’s not a toy and he showed me how to use it properly,” he said.
Britt believes individual gun ownership is a guarantor of democracy.
“In Europe they cede their rights and freedoms to their governments, but we think the government should be subservient to us,” he added.
For all the right-wing demagoguery associated with the NRA, this is quite a radical notion. The trouble is that, left in the hands of individuals, each gets to define their own version of tyranny and potentially undermine democracy with their firearms. Some believe the healthcare law enacted by the democratically elected US Congress is tyrannical.
In the hardscrabble town of Pahrump, Nevada, in 2010, I witnessed a conversation between conservatives about the most propitious moment to militarily challenge this government.
“The last thing we want to see is to break out our arms,” one said. “But we need to have them in hand, and the government needs to know that we will use [our arms] if they continue down the path they’re on.”
The Second Amendment is not the only factor that embeds guns in the US’ culture. As a settler nation that had to both impose and maintain its domination over indigenous people to acquire and defend land and feed itself in a frontier state, the gun made the US, as we understand it today, possible.
“None of us in the free world would have what we have if it were not for guns,” Britt says. “It’s about freedom, it’s not about violence.”
Missouri representative Jeanette Oxford, who represents a district in St Louis, disagrees.
“From the outset violence was enforced with weapons of various kinds in North America,” she says. “I think the ability to enforce your right through might is ingrained in us.”