Last Friday, at the close of a month full of gun-related news, including a mass shooting in California and a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in the Southwest, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a truly remarkable statement. Entitled “Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role,” this press release struck a rare note not only by addressing gun owners directly, as opposed to legislators or the media, but also by reprimanding some of them:
“As gun owners, whether or not our decisions are dictated by the law, we are still accountable for them. And we owe it to each other to act as checks on bad behavior before the legal system steps in and does it for us. If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences… Let’s take just a couple of examples. In each case, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. In each case, gun owners would do well to consider the effect their behavior has on others, whether fellow gun owners or not. “
This document was remarkable not only in its own right, but because of its aftermath, which is breaking news. But before I get to that, it’s worth looking very closely at what the NRA originally had to say. The first example the NRA chose was the escalating brouhaha over the availability of so-called “Smart Guns.” The issue of Smart Guns is extremely complicated, both in terms of the technological specifics and the relevant legislative landscape, and it’s something I will write about in more detail another day. Suffice it to say for the moment that the advent of guns with increased safety features, like the Armatix iP1, which only fires when held by a user who is wearing an RFID-enabled wristwatch, has provoked a backlash among certain gun enthusiasts – to the point that the weapon’s designer has received death threats and retailers were driven to withdraw it from their shelves. The reason for this backlash is that certain gun enthusiasts worry that once smart guns become available, all non-smart guns will be outlawed. It’s a fear that has intensified in no small part due to poorly conceived legislation in New Jersey, passed in 2002, that would mandate all firearms merchants to carry only smart guns once they became generally available. Although the legislator who sponsored that particular bill has indicated that she is willing to repeal it, the NRA has nonetheless steadfastly opposed the sale of any such smart guns, citing its concerns with laws like New Jersey’s. Last week’s press release doubled down on that opposition: “The lesson with ‘smart’ guns is that you can’t always evaluate the long-term consequences of a new ‘innovation’ in firearm technology or regulation at a glance… Before you embrace whatever schemes are being pushed by the self-described ‘gun safety advocates’ who’ve never met a ban or restriction on guns or ammunition they didn’t like, acquaint yourself with the facts.”
The NRA press release then turned to its second example of how “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be”: the Open Carry of long guns in public spaces, which has entered the public eye in the wake of a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in Texas. With a caveat of praise for the “robust gun culture” of the Lone Star State, the NRA’s presser observed that a “small number [of Texans] have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.”
“Now we love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today. Texas, independent-minded and liberty-loving place that it is, doesn’t ban the carrying of loaded long guns in public, nor does it require a permit for this activity. Yet some so-called firearm advocates seem determined to change this…While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. “
Why are these “firearm advocates” – like those “self-described ‘gun safety’ advocates’ – only “so-called”? It’s because, as the NRA sees it, their guntrolling “hijinx” threaten to ultimately work against gun rights – a suspicion that’s clearly justified given that several businesses have moved to ban Open Carry on their premises. With uncharacteristic candor, the NRA press release explicitly condemned this behavior:
“Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates…Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.”
Here’s why all this is particularly interesting. As an essentially conservative organization, at least in its current incarnation, the NRA can’t call for an outright ban on anything or demand restriction on its member’s behaviors; it can only enjoin “responsibility” and “neighborliness.” In this sense, the NRA’s statement parlayed the values associated with classic American conservativism at its best: self-restraint and persuasion instead of compulsion, community consciousness and responsibility instead of regulation.
But in another sense, that press release leveraged a more contemporary feature of American conservativism – a sense that citizens’ rights are embattled, teetering on a slippery slope towards destruction. In both cases – with Smart Guns and Open Carry – the NRA statement appealed to a consequentialist logic: doing X might likely lead, someday, somehow, to Y. Allowing for the sale of Smart Guns might lead, down the line, to the outlawing of all other guns. Brazen Open Carry of long guns in fast food restaurants might lead, down the line, to pro-gun control backlash among otherwise undecided voters. However realistic each specific scenario might be, the same slippery-slope logic underwrites both.
But the problem is that the NRA doesn’t have a monopoly on that kind of logic. Open Carry advocates themselves argue that not bearing their weapons encourages an “anti-gun” atmosphere that would inevitably result in yet further limitation of their rights. As Open Carry.Org puts it: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, said the NRA to the Open Carry movement. Because we can, we have to, was the response.
The tragic irony here, of course, is that the NRA has been relying on slippery-slope logic for decades, not least by constantly hyping fears of a (highly unlikely) renewed Assault Weapons Ban to sell guns and by invoking the specter of a (pretty much impossible) government confiscation of all guns to drive up membership. The NRA has been pushing the slippery slope angle for years, cultivating extremist gun owners for the worst case scenario. But now suddenly the NRA finds itself beholden to those extremists, and the target of their paranoid fears. Because when some Open Carry activists cut up their NRA membership cards and accused the NRA of “losing its relevance” and siding “with the gun control extremists and their lapdog media,” it was only a matter of time before Chris Cox, Executive Director at the Institute for Legislative Action, was obliged to perform a backtracking mea culpa: “Now, the truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as weird, or somehow not normal. And that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a discussion with the staffer who wrote that piece, and expressed his personal opinion. Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”
Listening to Cox flail uncomfortably and pin blame on some unfortunate staffer, it was hard not to recall the opening words of Friday’s press release, about people taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good and bad. “In ways small and large,” that release ran, “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in preserving our cherished freedoms for ourselves and future generations.” What does that future hold if preserving those freedoms now no longer carries even the minimum obligation to enjoin responsibility and restraint in exercising them?