This feature appears in the January ‘17 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association.
Watching the news during the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits can be a strange and unsettling experience. After a cursory look at the convention center—and a pro forma, if not reluctant, recitation of the year’s attendance numbers—our friends in the press tend to swiftly move on to an inevitable examination of the “other side.”
“But not everybody here was pleased,” the newsreader will say, before showing a motley collection of protestors holding home-drawn signs. And then come the interviews, given invariably on behalf of “the people.”
Such broadcasts represent perfect examples of what media critics tend to call “bothsidesism”—that is, the reflexive assumption that any story, issue or public question must by nature be a 50/50 proposition. Because it is not remotely controversial, more than three-quarters of Americans believe that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. And yet, during television debates over whatever is the gun control measure du jour, the amendment’s meaning is presented as if it were a great mystery. Likewise, while there is no evidence whatsoever that concealed carry causes any kinds of problems, the media like to trot out the doomsayers whenever a state sees fit to liberalize its laws. “But not everyone is happy with the new rules,” viewers will be told. And then they’ll be treated to a round of willfully misleading “on-the-other-hand” hysteria. The trappings of true grassroots organizations (like NRA) are curiously missing from gun control groups. Where are their conventions? Where are the bus tours, the meetups, the magazines, the marches?
A similar game is played with the root politics of gun control. Thus it is that the news that “80,000 people attended the NRA convention” is followed by the news that 12 people stood outside and shouted wildly—as if the two events were commensurate in importance and implication. Thus it is that carefully cropped photos are used to imply support for dramatic change where there is, in fact, little. And thus it is that a gun control movement that has long lacked popular support and energy is often reported on as if it were sweeping the nation.
It’s not, of course. Certainly, there is a good amount of money being funneled into gun control efforts. Certainly, there are a host of national politicians who would like nothing more than to follow Australia’s gun-ban lead. And yes, anti-gun celebrities enjoy outsized microphones behind which to make their cases. But the door-knocking, leaflet-leaving, congressman-calling, single-issue voting that makes the difference in contemporary American politics? That part is sorely missing. Despite its name, “Everytown” is not actually in or from “every town.” Despite the umbrella term that is deployed, “Moms Demand Action” comprises only a handful of mothers in this country. These are not the movements you’re looking for.
Indeed, closer investigation reveals that a good portion of the “anti-gun groups” that are supposedly playing a role in our national debate do not actually exist in any recognizable form at all. In pointing this out, I am not referring only to the usual tricks that “astroturf” outfits employ: e.g., “We’ve got 2.5 million members!” in truth means, “We’ve got 2.5 million people on the mailing lists we bought.” Rather, I am recording that a sizeable number of namechecked gun control outfits are straight-up non-entities.
Take, by way of example, the 17 “common-sense” “grassroots” groups whose support Hillary Clinton lauded in a late October press release. Seventeen sounds like a lot, right? And that Clinton has noticed them implies that they are a big deal? But ... well, they’re not.
In fact, as Clay Turner noted on the a1f Daily website, of the 17 groups named, not a single one seems to be active. Taken together, the outfits constitute a ragtag collection of unloved Facebook pages, archived records of one-off events, single-person vanity projects and tbd statements of principle. And one of the “groups”—“New Castle Promise”—doesn’t appear to exist at all. If, as seems to be the case here, the endorsement of a Facebook page is enough to justify a press release, pro-gun politicians are going to have their work cut out henceforth.
Lest I be misunderstood, I should say for the record that there is nothing at all wrong with small advocacy groups, with political startups or with passionate individuals who seek to evangelize. The United States was built by its thriving civil society, and it is improved by that society one volunteer at a time.
But there is a material difference between real political involvement and the gaming of the system. The sad fact of modern American life is that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to read past the headlines that swoop past their eyes, and they are, as a result, often badly deceived. If, as was the case prior to the election, a voter reads in passing that Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by “17 gun control groups,” he has no way of knowing whether the story was meaningful or not. (As we have learned, it wasn’t.) The same rule goes for carefully chosen photographs, deliberately falsified statistics and wholly contrived anecdotes, all of which can be placed firmly into online folklore regardless of their veracity. It takes eight seconds to become misinformed, but an hour to learn the truth—just as it takes minutes to establish a fake organization, but days to discover that there’s nothing behind the facade. Never in the field of human politics have so many been so fooled by so few.
Really, it should come as no great surprise that misdirection has become the name of the game in this realm, for, as the Michael Bloombergs of the world have learned, genuine gun control organizations tend to have almost no staying power at all. Between 2005 and 2010, anti-gun progressives became excited and inspired by an outfit that called itself the “American Hunters and Shooters Association” and claimed the mantle of “hunters who are looking to belong to a gun owners association that doesn’t have a radical agenda.” On the face of it, the AHSA was an answer to the NRA—a grassroots group for gun owners who want more gun restrictions. In reality, it was a front group masterminded by a contractor for the Brady Center, a donor to Handgun Control Inc., and a founder of Stop Handgun Violence. When, in 2010, AHSA announced that it was shutting its doors for lack of members, nobody was especially surprised: That’s what happens when you build a political outfit to accommodate a political bloc that doesn’t actually exist. If you build it, they may come. But only if they’re interested in your product. For a short while, smoke and mirrors will suffice as a strategy for generating attention. But when the polls open and the ballots are counted and the protestors start lining up in the streets, the numbers cannot be fudged.
And where, one wonders, is that product? Scour the web and you will find an almost endless supply of Second Amendment-related blogs, discussion groups, technical websites and so forth. Go over to Reddit and you will see a host of perpetually updated conversations. The Colorado recalls of 2013 were organized initially by a group of private citizens who met on the ar-15.com forum; a few months after their initial conversation, they took down two state senators. Where is Moms Demand Action’s equivalent of that?
And where are their conventions? Where are the bus tours, the meetups, the magazines, the marches? The New York Times exhibits no shortage of anti-gun articles, but the “silent majority” to which they inevitably refer seems always to remain inaudible. If it is to mean anything practical at all, the “common” part of “common sense” must apply to more than a handful. Does it?
The answer, it seems, is “No.” And that, ultimately, is the Left’s big problem. Bloomberg and Co. have a great deal of money and a bucket of misguided ambition, but very little to build on that could be said to be concrete. To watch the rhetoric that swirls around the gun debate is to learn that most anti-Second Amendment efforts rely upon a trio of oft-repeated falsehoods. The first: that violence committed with firearms is trending upwards in the United States, instead of down. The second: that more guns lead to more crime, when, in America at least, precisely the opposite seems to be the case. The third: that, rather than insisting upon a restoration of the right to bear arms over the last three decades or so, the American public has long been desperate for stricter rules.
As narratives intended to appeal to the press or resonate on Twitter, these three have a lot to recommend them. But, because they aren’t actually true, they limit the appeal that any outfit built atop of them is likely to have. Repeating myths does not magically make them true. Saying “There are lots of us” doesn’t produce a crowd. Sending out e-mails does not a membership make.
Or, at least, it doesn’t long-term. For a short while, smoke and mirrors will suffice as a strategy for generating attention. But when the polls open and the ballots are counted and the protestors start lining up in the streets, the numbers cannot be fudged. Who, one wonders, did Hillary Clinton think she was kidding when boasting of support that didn’t exist? What benefit did she hope that sleight of hand would accrue? And, in the end, who did her reflexive dishonesty help?
They might look good in the papers, but phantoms can’t vote.
Charles C.W. Cookeis the editor of National Review Online.