“From my cold, dead hands!” shouted Charlton Heston. The audience roared its approval for their President and charismatic leader. Heston was the only person defiantly holding a rifle over his head, but, as I scanned the room, everyone appeared ready to take up arms in the gun wars. Forty thousand strong attended the 2002 National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Reno, Nevada. They came for the guns. To hold them, talk about them, celebrate them, and, most important, defend them.
Unlike millions of other gun owners, the NRA and its faithful members believe that “gun rights” are under attack. They are also distinct in their belief that threats to guns are threats to all individual rights and freedoms. Take away gun rights, they say, and all other rights are sure to follow. An unarmed population will be unable to defend itself against a tyrannical government. Committed NRA members support the organization, because they agree with the NRA's interpretation and defense of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. My conversations with committed NRA members reveal their profound love of the United States and their belief that gun rights are one of many that free citizens enjoy. But love is not the emotion that drives the NRA. Love is not what transformed this former group of gun enthusiasts into a four-million-member conservative social movement organization (SMO) and political lightning rod. Listening to NRA leaders and speaking with members, their most palpable emotion is fear.
They feel threatened by a gun culture on the decline, gun control organizations, “anti-gun” politicians, and any gun control legislation. They fear the government having the power to tell them how many and which kinds of guns they can own, if any, when and where they can shoot them or carry them, how and from whom they can buy them, and even under what circumstances they can be used for self-defense. They fear losing their guns, and they fear losing their freedoms.