Far from the halls of Congress, the press conferences and the TV talk shows, there is a different kind of gun politics happening in America. It isn’t about which gun to ban or what the 2nd Amendment “really” means. Instead, it is about everyday fears and risks, both real and imagined, and the very personal decision to carry a gun for self-protection.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are at least 8 million Americans licensed to carry a concealed gun today. The National Rifle Assn. is the national leader in training those who choose to get such a license. Whereas major anti-gun efforts such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence operate at the policy level, away from most people’s concrete fears and concerns, the NRA is hands on: More than 750,000 Americans go through some kind of NRA training every year.
In 2010, I was certified as an NRA trainer as part of my research on gun politics. I was in Michigan, where more than 300,000 state residents — 1 in 25 — are licensed under the state’s “concealed carry” law. In Michigan you can conceal a pistol on your hip, in a shoulder holster or in a purse as you buy groceries, grab a cup of coffee or go to the library.
There are regulations — you must have a clean criminal and mental health record, you have to be 21, and even with the license, you cannot carry concealed guns in schools, day-care centers or churches. You also have to pay an NRA-certified trainer as much as $150 and spend eight hours meeting a training requirement.
Today, Michigan’s concealed-carry law is the rule not the exception. In 1970, only four states allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons on a “non-discretionary” basis, meaning applicants did not have to provide a specific reason for obtaining a license. Now 40 states have such laws.
The NRA has played a key role in pushing for these laws, which not incidentally provide a pathway for NRA recruiting. Most of these laws implicitly or explicitly require people to get NRA training. In Iowa, the NRA opposed proposed alternative legislation that removed the training requirement. And once the bill it favored passed, the NRA issued a “call to arms” to rapidly increase the number of certified NRA instructors in the state.
Importantly, these courses entail limited firearms training: According to law, students can fulfill the requirement by shooting fewer than 100 rounds of ammunition and spending only about two hours on the range. While the course provides baseline proficiency in target shooting, it does not provide experience in more realistic scenarios, such as shooting from an uncomfortable position or while moving. Often, students don’t practice rapidly removing their guns from a holster and shooting, which is deceptively difficult under stress.
Why is so little time devoted to firearms handling?
The answer is that these classes aren’t just about handling guns. For Americans who perceive the world as dangerous and insecure, the NRA helps them justify their choice to carry a gun by asking students to reflect on their commitment to protecting innocent life. Here is one excerpt from the “NRA Basics of Personal Protection in the Home,” used in Michigan concealed-carry training classes: “If you do defend yourself, it is important in the aftermath to remember: You are a good person.... You are a moral person. Your attacker was the one who chose a lifestyle and sequence of events that led to this encounter. You were morally justified in protecting yourself and your family. You have quite possibly saved the lives of others.”
These kinds of statements serve to teach concealed carriers that their license marks them as a special citizen, someone who is willing to rise to the need to take a repugnant action — the killing of another person — in order to save innocent lives. Implicit in this is a practical message from the NRA that often gets lost in the national gun debate: You may well need to defend yourself and others.
This message depends on the assumption that crime happens, and the police cannot or will not be there when it does. This particularly resonates in places like Michigan, which has been known for its high crime rate since the 1970s. Although violent crime has decreased in Michigan (as in much of the nation) since then, it still outpaces national averages. In addition, public services, including the number of police on the streets, have been cut back in Michigan. In such contexts, the NRA is not just the no-compromise leader of the gun lobby, it is a service organization that provides people with tools for safety and protection.
While the gun control lobby is writing legislation, the NRA is providing individuals with more than rhetoric. Its power lies in its ability to tap into people’s real and imagined fears to powerfully shape everyday politics related to crime, insecurity and policing in America — something gun control activists may fail to fully understand and address.
Jennifer Carlson begins teaching in the sociology department at the University of Toronto next fall. She is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley. @jdawncarlson.