In the weeks since the Newtown shooting in Connecticut, a lot of people have weighed in on the national conversation about guns, violence, and the prevention of mass shootings. That's the way it should be - governance should be noisy and raucous and involve lots of ideas, to see what shakes out.
One thing that has surprised many has been the nature and tenor of the NRA's responses. First, the organization was absolutely silent for a week - not even a sympathy-with-the-victims canned response for a full seven days. Then came a fiery, combative speech from Wayne LaPierre that even some Republicans labelled as "politically tone-deaf".
Now the NRA's latest public pronouncement has been to lambast the Obama administration, and Joe Biden in particular, after having been invited to be part of the conversation at the White House.
This may leave many still scratching their heads. Why is the NRA being so combative, so "politically tone-deaf"? Why are they so reluctant to appear reasonable in the public eye, to possibly win over some supporters outside of their most hard-core backers? Hasn't anybody taught these guys how politics is done?
I admit to having been puzzled myself, for a while. But I think I've come to an answer to why the NRA is acting as it is. The answer follows from a dictum I'm fond of: behavior comes from ideas. As you think, so shall you act.
Wayne LaPierre's now-famous "good guy with a gun" formulation gives the game away. It isn't that his claim about bad guys and good guys was meant to be an analysis of the world, or a political argument to sway others. It was simply a reflection of the worldview of the current NRA leadership. In that view, there are good guys and bad guys, and conflicts between them are resolved when the good guys win and the bad guys lose.
Their approach to everything is therefore rooted in zero-sum thinking. Either I win or you do; we cannot both get something, because how can "good" and "bad" coexist? Accordingly, they don't want to "contribute to a national conversation" or "influence policy" or do anything that most of us would think of as political participation. They want to win, pure and simple, and regard anything less than winning as loss. To them, the fight is existential.
It is fitting that a group whose identity revolves around guns should adopt this view. In a conflict, guns are the ultimate zero-sum tool. There are very few compromises, ties, or partial results from a gun fight. It's been pointed out that guns don't kill people, they just make it really easy - and the whole point of you killing me is that my death will end the argument, the conflict will be over, and you will have "won".
Back in the real world, this is a terrible, awful, dysfunctional view of how to resolve conflicts. In a grand scale, it almost never works - everyone can name lots of attempted genocides from the last 100 years, but how many actually succeeded? Even at an interpersonal level, when someone shoots someone else they usually find that that doesn't resolve the conflict - it may only make it far worse. Ask George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn whether shooting someone solved their problems.
So long as the NRA continues to hold to its zero-sum worldview, its "contributions" are worthless and should be ignored. The complex issues of gun legislation, mental health, and violence will not be resolved or even meaningfully addressed by one side winning and another side losing. When the NRA's leadership gains enough wisdom and maturity to see this, they can rejoin the conversation. In the meantime, the rest of us have work to do in trying to sort out complex responses to messy problems in which, hopefully, all of us win something.