NRA = No Rational Argument? How the National Rifle Association Exploits Public Irrationality

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION: ARMING THE IRRATIONAL

Many Americans responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by purchasing firearms. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that it conducted 455,000 more background checks on gun buyers during the six-month period following 9-11 than during the same period the year before.' Although a handgun is unlikely to effectively defend against a suicide attack with an airplane, an anthrax letter, or a car bomb, owning a deadly weapon made many people feel safer. One gun retailer reported, "My handgun [sales] have gone crazy. It seemed like immediately [after September 11] it was real, real crazy, people walking in right after each other wanting a gun."2 Numerous studies show that the presence of a firearm in the home increases the likelihood of violence against family members.3 Despite this, gun ownership is widespread in the United States - estimates indicate that there may be as many as 200 million privately owned guns in the country, and almost one third of households own at least one firearm.4

Although close to 30,000 Americans are killed by gunfire every year,5 the firearm industry is one of the least regulated in the nation.6 This is in large part due to the efforts of the National Rifle Association (NRA), a leading opponent of gun control legislation. This paper argues that a large part of the NRA's success is due to its ability to manipulate existing irrationalities-things that make people go "real, real crazy"-among its supporters to intensify and mobilize opposition to gun control. The first section will briefly describe the legislative power of the NRA. The second section will review the existing literature on irrationality and risk. The final section will demonstrate how the NRA exploits these irrationalities more successfully than the interest groups that favor gun control.

II. THE POWER OF THE NRA

Polling data consistently shows that the positions taken by the NRA are not the positions favored by the American public.7 The NRA is opposed to any new gun control legislation, no matter how sensible. The NRA has opposed bans on guns with plastic components (which can pass through metal detectors) and armor piercing "cop killer" bullets.8 It favored allowing the federal ban on military-style assault weapons to expire in 2004.9 It opposed limited measures that reduce illegal gun trafficking, such as "one gun a month" laws.10 Moreover, the NRA has lobbied against every federal firearms regulation-from the 1934 National Firearms Act, which banned machine guns, to the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required background checks on gun purchasers.11

The NRA dominates the debate on gun control. Political scientist Robert Spitzer describes the NRA as "the fierce three-headed watchdog from Greek mythology, Cerberus, ... [dominating] and [defining] gun politics for most of the twentieth century."12 Fortune Magazine declared that the NRA was the most powerful lobby group in Washington in 2001,13 and observers of American politics have speculated that the NRA has surpassed the religious right as the most important constituency of the Republican Party.14 Many frequently cite the NRA as the paradigmatic example of an effective interest group, especially in the context of its demonstrated ability to trump public opinion that might favor stricter gun control.15

There is also a strong perception that the NRA has the ability to swing elections. Many Democrats believe the NRA and the gun control issue cost Al Gore the White House in 2000.16 Others argue that the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill were responsible for the Republican take-over of Congress in 1994.17 Supporters of the NRA are likely to be single-issue voters-they will cast their ballot based solely on a candidate's position on gun control.18

Representative Peter Smith (R-NH) sponsored a bill to ban assault weapons in 1989 after promising the NRA he would oppose all gun control. …