Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why the NRA Will Lose the National Debate

Having watched roughly a month of discussion, debate, and caterwauling over the issue of gun control in the US, I have come to an analytical conclusion: the NRA is going to lose. Yes, they may win a legislative victory or two by blocking this or that particular piece of gun legislation. They may convince Texas or another like-minded state to open up gun access in some marginal way. There are plenty of battles to be fought. But so long as the NRA continues on its current path, the outcome of the political war is certain.

I say this not because I want one outcome or another, nor because of an analysis of the various facts, factoids, and made-up stuff that partisans are slinging about. I come to this conclusion because the ongoing political struggle over gun control bears all the hallmarks of other, past political battles over social issues where one side has succumbed to inexorable defeat. There is a way of these things, signs that things are not going well. Movements would do well to heed these signs, but they almost never do.

One of the outward signs of impending loss is an asymmetrical pattern of rhetoric. The side that is losing (whether it knows it or not) ratchets up its rhetoric from loud to shrill to deafening. The argument evolves from "this is what we want" to "we're right and you're wrong" to "if we lose, it's the end of everything we hold dear". When the argument gets existential - the Death of Democracy, 1000 Years of Darkness - you know you've gone off the deep end.

There are plenty of signs of this, from NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre's "tone deaf", take-no-prisoners speech one week after the Newtown shootings to the internet reactions of many NRA supporters to President Obama's announcement about new gun legislation. A prominent Republican in Cincinnati, State Board of Education President Debe Terhar, got herself in trouble for reposting a popular pro-gun meme on Facebook that made an implicit connection between Adolph Hitler and President Obama. Her disingenuous "I didn't mean to compare Obama to Hitler" defense aside, she crossed the Godwin's Law line - sooner or later, someone always brings up Hitler, and whoever does loses.

Shrill Hitler comparisons aren't a particularly persuasive argument, but they are more a symptom than a cause of the impending loss. The justifications of losing minorities always turn to existential dogma sooner or later, as the remaining members circle the wagons and try to hold back the tide.

The real reason why the most rabid pro-gun position is destined to lose is that the core idea it is based on is fear. We need guns, we are told, because we need to fear our government (tyranny!), or we need to fear the "bad guys" (predators and killers!), or the mentally ill (mass killers and sociopaths!), or what have you. The problem with basing an argument on fear is that fear is a feeling which most people don't like and would rather not experience. And if they aren't experiencing it, yelling at them that they should doesn't help. Just because there is a small tribal wing of the Republican party that feels fear every time a Democrat occupies the White House doesn't mean that they can convince the rest of us to do the same.

What the pro-gun argument lacks is the hallmark of nearly all successful social movements: compassion. The Civil Rights movement ultimately triumphed because, at its heart, it was based on an argument of compassion for fellow human beings. The struggle for gay marriage is being inexorably won for the same reason. When one side's argument is based on compassion and the other isn't, the other simply looks mean-spirited, which more than any "facts" that might get thrown around tends to drive people away.

This is one reason why the abortion debate has remained largely stable and deadlocked over the last several decades. In the case of abortion, both sides appeal to compassion - the pro-life party to compassion for the unborn baby, the pro-choice party to compassion for the mother. These are some of the hardest moral questions, where we must pit the well-being of one against another. Those kinds of questions feel difficult, because our feelings are torn.

By contrast, nothing in the rhetoric of the NRA or its supporters shows any signs of compassion for anyone. There are (often exaggerated) appeals to fear (they're coming to take your guns!) And there are appeals to abstract principles, which tend to treat the Constitution as Holy Scripture and its authors as Divine Beings - an asserted dogma which likewise fails to convince those outside the tribe.

This, of course, is why the Newtown shooting appears to have moved the needle in ways that other events (Aurora, Gabby Giffords, even Trayvon Martin) did not. The desire to protect six year old children is universally human, and the compassion we feel for the victims and their families overpowers nearly everything else. To fail to express that compassion, as the NRA has, is to appear cold and callous, even inhumane.

No doubt some will protest that it's not right that we should make policy based on feelings, and that facts and principles - the stuff of Reason - should rule the day. Setting aside the NRA's troubled relationship with facts and science, this argument misses the reality of social politics. American society is significantly impacted by science and reason, but also by feeling and emotion. We are children both of the Enlightenment and the Romantics. Romanticism without reason leads to terrible excesses of passion. But reason without feeling (especially without compassion) leads to excesses of the cold, calculating sort - the sort that describes civilian deaths in war as "collateral damage".

Unless the NRA and its supporters can find a way to ground their arguments in a compassionate worldview, they are destined for defeat. It won't come today or tomorrow, but slowly and inexorably their power will wither and fade. And no shrill appeals to dogma or wild comparisons to Adolph Hitler will prevent their being reduced to irrelevance.

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