The GOP's gun obsession goes deeper than campaign donations
Republicans aren't posing for AR-15 family photos because of money.
By Noah Berlatsky
After the latest school shooting — this one at a Nashville private school where a gunman killed three adults and three nine-year-old students — David Hogg took to Twitter to express what’s on many of our minds.
“I seriously wonder how the lawyers, employees and lobbyists of the gun lobby can sleep at night. Knowing they are responsible for the slaughter of our kids for profit,” wrote Hogg, who has been a gun control activist since, as a high school student in Florida, he survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018.
Hogg also highlighted that Marsha Blackburn, one of Tennessee’s two senators, has received $1.3 million from National Rifle Association throughout her political career.
Hogg’s argument here is that pro-gun politicians oppose common sense gun reform because they’ve been bribed. That our brutally high gun death rates are a result of corruption; that the gun lobby pays Blackburn and her ilk to block regulations that clearly would save lives; that the GOP is choosing money over children. It’s a straightforward tale of capitalist greed and immorality.
This is a compelling narrative. The problem is that it goes deeper than that.
The GOP has not been corrupted by capitalism. It would be more accurate to say it’s been corrupted by fascism. Guns are part of white Christofascist identity politics. The GOP supports guns as part of a principled commitment to a death cult, not because they need NRA money to win elections.
Focusing on NRA money obscures the real danger from the GOP. It also can lead gun control proponents to pursue confused and ineffective tactics. We need to understand why the GOP embraces guns if we’re ever going to have a hope of opposing them.
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The NRA doesn’t spend that much money on elections
The first sign that the NRA is not driving gun policy with its political contributions is the fact that it simply doesn’t spend that much money in political races. That $1.3 million Blackburn received is, again, money taken in over the course of her entire political career, which stretches back to her first election as a Tennessee state senator in 1999, almost 25 years ago. In comparison, in the 2018 campaign in which Blackburn first won her Senate seat, her campaign and outside groups spent $30 million. Even if the NRA had donated that $1.3 million all at once, Blackburn would barely have noticed it in the blizzard of cash.
Blackburn isn’t unusual; NRA contributions are typically a tiny fraction of candidate contributions, as Philip Bump at the Washington Post explained back in 2016. He found that for most candidates, NRA donations were less than .5 percent of direct donations to campaigns. Even if you look at the category of independent outside expenditures, which cannot be coordinated with the campaign, the NRA gives only about 15 percent of donations, coming behind organizations like the Republican senatorial committee and the Chamber of Commerce.
Sometimes gun control advocates acknowledge that the NRA’s spending on candidates amounts to peanuts; one Twitter user sneered that Idaho Sen. Jim Risch had been “bribed for the price of a used car.” It’s a good line, but the logic underpinning it is confused.
The NRA spends so little not because the GOP is cheap, but because the GOP agrees with them. The gun lobby spends (fairly small amounts) of money to help elect ideological allies, not to sway the GOP to their side. In other words, NRA donations function much like other political donations — they’re meant to boost the side the donor wants to win, rather than as a quid pro quo to sway otherwise neutral candidates to the donor’s cause.
Identity, not money, drives gun worship
The small size of the NRA’s donations makes it unlikely they’re meaningfully bribing politicians. Nor do GOP politicians behave as if they’ve been bribed. When politicians vote their donors over their constituents, they don’t tend to boast about it.
Former Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler never held a press conference to proudly announce to voters that she’d made millions on stock trades that sure looked like they were related to inside, early knowledge of the Covid pandemic. Independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has been fairly open about her cozy relationship with private equity, and has raked in cash from that sector with aplomb. But she also avoids public events in which constituents can question her, and her approval in her home state is dismal.
GOP politicians don’t treat guns like dirty stock trades, and don’t try to hide from constituents after gun votes. On the contrary, they tout their pro-gun credentials every chance they get. Rep. Andy Ogles, who represents the district where the Nashville shooting took place, sent out a Christmas card showing himself with his wife and children standing in front of a tree. They’re all grinning and holding assault weapons.
Especially in light of the horrific recent shooting, the card is ghoulish. But Ogles doesn’t see it as ghoulish, and he didn’t make it for donors. He took the image, and sent it out, because he believes his constituents will see it and identify with him. The way you show you’re a real, red-blooded, Christofascist Republican is to take pictures of yourself with a bunch of guns.
As communications professor Ryan Neville-Shepard explains at the Milwaukee Independent, guns on the right have increasingly become a symbol of white masculinity — and I’d argue of white Christian masculinity. Guns stand for defending home and family against “criminals” — a term which, in the dogwhistle rich environment of the right, means “non-white people.” In addition, Neville-Shepard notes, guns in right-wing political ads during the Obama administration became a symbol of (violent) opposition to Democratic government. Marjorie Taylor Greene ran an ad touting a gun giveaway in 2021 in which she promised to “blow away the Democrats’ socialist agenda.”
Christian white evangelical Republicans imagine themselves as besieged by a corrupt decadent liberal Black atheist state determined to destroy them; they think they’re living out the fantasy of the viciously fascist Turner Diaries. Guns are a symbol of virility and righteous Christian white resistance to oppression. They’re like MAGA hats or, in an earlier fascist movement, swastika armbands. It’s an identity marker which shows you’re with the program, and also serves as a threat to out groups. The righteous rush of identity, victimhood, superiority, and violence is more important to the GOP than money. In fact, it’s more important to them than the lives of their children.
Fighting guns means fighting for voting rights
If politicians were against gun control simply out of greed, it would be easy to change their minds. Simply outbid the NRA, and you could have all the gun control you wanted. That’s what billionaire Michael Bloomberg has tried to do since 2014. Obviously, it hasn’t solved our gun problem.
Pointing out GOP “corruption” hasn’t been very helpful either. Telling GOP voters that their reps are in thrall to the gun lobby doesn’t resonate because it’s not true. GOP reps are in thrall to their voters, who want them to fight for “gun rights.” Only 37 percent of Republicans support assault weapons bans; only 43 percent support a government database to track gun sales.
Nationally, these restrictions have majority support — overall some 63 percent of the electorate backs banning assault weapons. But GOP politicians in red areas have to win primaries dominated by constituents who see gun control as violation of their white Christian identity. More, red states, and red areas within states, have disproportionate power in the House and especially in the Senate. A minority who believe guns are a sacramental necessity to preserve white Christian masculinity are holding the rest of us hostage to their violent persecution fantasies.
If we want to break the deadlock here, as with so many policies in the US, we’re going to need to contest the GOP’s minoritarian hold on the electoral system. That means ending gerrymandering in the House as a first step. It also means taking steps to balance the Senate. The quickest, most effective way to start doing that that would be to enfranchise Washington, DC, adding two reliably Democratic votes to the Senate. Those new senators could then help pass gun control legislation and perhaps also help appoint Democratic judges to the right-wing Supreme Court which notoriously, and not coincidentally, stripped DC of its ability to regulate firearms in its jurisdiction.
Gun control advocates are generally Democrats, and are broadly in support of voting rights. But they tend to emphasize money and corruption as the root of gun rights intransigence, rather than pointing to voter suppression and minority rule. I think that’s a mistake.
Gun control isn’t primarily a fight against wealthy donors. It’s mostly a fight against a Christofascist authoritarian movement. You can’t shame GOP politicians by “exposing” donations that they’re proud to receive. You need to outvote them. And the only way to do that is to establish a real democracy, in which the will of the majority prevails.
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