How we talk about the NRA: Good journalism makes a better world.
With a single change to the AP stylebook, American journalism could take a major step toward ending the epidemic of gun violence in America, while still scrupulously adhering to the truth. The change is this: Add a descriptor to the abbreviation for the National Rifle Association. On second reference, require a comma after the NRA followed by the words, “the marketing and sales team for the gun industry.”
With that one appositive clause, the media could pull back the curtain on what too many politicians today believe is a massive monolithic army of gun obsessives willing to unquestionably do its bidding.
In doing so, journalists would reshape the politics of guns in America — not a journalists’ mission of course, but a decent byproduct of a job well done.
The research connecting the dots between gun manufacturers and sellers and the NRA and the marketing of fear and death, was compiled for the latest Brave New Films feature, “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA.” It is there for the taking.
While the appositive clause is a personal favorite, there are a number of other ways media might reconsider the frame with which we have for too long been discussing guns and gun culture.
Let’s start with the media’s self-flagellation for not truly understanding or knowing enough about guns. Here’s CNN’s Reliable Sources host eating that crow (around 1:39), unnecessarily, and a piece from way back in the American Journalism Review making a similar point. Yes, journalists should get facts right. But can you imagine a reporter telling the story of a hit-and-run accident that kills a child accepting criticism for not knowing the finer points of auto mechanics to include in the story?
Next up, ditch the fallacy that the 2nd Amendment is deeply relevant and meaningful to gun owners, or really, to anyone.
I concede: The 2nd Amendment exists. It does indeed say “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” We can all have long, heated arguments about how exactly this line should be interpreted, but that misses a more important point:The National Rifle Association does not exist to protect anyone’s constitutional rights. The National Rifle Association exists to sell guns. The NRA is funded by the gun industry directly and through numerous complex clubs, associations, promotions, special and educational funds and other legal entities designed to hide financial transactions.
A great deal of this money is being spent on a decades-long campaign to terrify Americans, to make them scared of their neighbors, of people who don’t look like them or worship like them, and of their own government. These scared, angry Americans are the vaunted army of the NRA and they are indeed a passionate bunch. But the 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with their passion. At best, it is a talking point for individuals who cannot admit to themselves, let alone to anyone in public, that they are motivated by fear and by the insecurity and hatred it engenders.
When Stephanie Soechtig, whose documentary “Under the Gun,” was narrated by Katie Couric and shown at Sundance, says she is looking to “bring together Second Amendment purists and those who favor stricter gun control laws,” she is doing a disservice to her work by perpetuating the myth that constitutional law is at the center of the gun violence debate and in doing so, giving cover to the NRA and to the politicians in its thrall. The same is true when CNN bills its town hall on guns as a discussion featuring organizations that support the Second Amendment.
As damaging as the embrace of violent extremists as constitutional scholars is, even more so is the credulous acceptance that there are 5 million of these Americans who routinely do the NRA’s bidding. As noted, there are indeed a small group of scared, angry and armed Americans who define themselves by their insistence that their fears matter more than the lives of tens of thousands of Americans killed or wounded by gun violence every year. But five million? At face value? It’s time to put that number aside.
There have been numerous attempts to pin down the actual number of NRA members. Some put it at a closer to between three and four million people, based on a range of publicly available documents. It could be substantially less. We will never know unless the NRA opens itself up to real scrutiny and the fact that they won’t should make their purported membership rolls even more suspect. Another recent investigation found that the amount of revenue the NRA attributes to membership has dropped precipitously in the last few years.
Then there is the question of what membership means. Numerous surveys have found a gaping disconnect between the NRA and their membership on issues, such as background checks for gun purchases and safe storage of guns around children. Gun companies and retailers often offer a free NRA membership with purchase — as in, “to thank you for buying my product, I am going to subject you to endless streams of marketing, urging you to buy more of my product.” Members of shooting clubs agree to be NRA members in exchange for access to thousands of dollars in potential grants, official competitions for junior members, and legal advice and representation, if necessary.
None of this means these are not actually NRA members, only that a journalist looking to truly present the facts should not take the 5 million figure as gospel. To do so, and then to assume that these 5 million individuals all agree with the NRA and will do their bidding, is to give cover to spineless politicians who claim they are voting — for example — to allow people on the terror watch list to buy guns because doing so reflects the will of their constituents.
Yet the following paragraph from The New York Times shows how easy it is to fall into this trap. This appears in the context of a profile of chief NRA lobbyist Chris Cox.
“Mr. Cox and more than a dozen N.R.A. lobbyists under him buttonholed Republican senators in a flurry of meetings, calls and emails, officials said. And in a message on Twitter, they directed the N.R.A.’s five million members to “call your senators NOW and urge them to vote NO on any and all #guncontrol proposals.”
The New York Times has particular standing in general and on this issue is in particular, thanks to its taking the almost unprecedented step of placing an anti-gun violence editorial on their front page. It’s likely then that the paper’s editors would have accepted edits to this paragraph such as “the N.R.A’s purported five million members.” The paper might also have followed up with a look at how many of those members actually took to Twitter in outrage. It might not have been possible to find out, but it would have been valuable to ask.
Part of the reason media has fallen prey to this kind of language is likely attributable to the relentless attack on “liberal media elite” proffered by the right wing for the last several decades. As a result of this cynically orchestrated campaign, well-meaning reporters have been known to bend over backwards to prove otherwise, and in doing so treat statements like “Obama wants to take our guns,” as valid points to debate.
For a particularly egregious example of how this can play out, consider that USA Today ran an entire story (in the sports section, no less) about National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s assertion that the woman shot to death by her professional football player boyfriend would have been alive today if she had a gun.
“Owning guns is a mainstream part of American culture and it’s growing every day,” NRA President Wayne LaPierre says in that same story.
That’s not true, of course. The percentage of households that have a gun has been falling steadily since the 1970s.
The fact that the author of this piece let the lie stand is testament to how well the NRA has done its job for its client, marketing its myth, and selling guns, for decades now. Indeed, the very fact that this story was written at all, that the ravings of a man paid to peddle fear and its hardware is considered relevant commentary on the horrific murder of a young woman by an intimate partner, shows just how much work there is still to be done changing the narrative around guns in America. The media has the power to do this, and in doing it, to save lives. The only question is whether it has the will.