In Indianapolis this weekend, tens of thousands of members of the National Rifle Association came, saw, and — well, in truth, they had already conquered. Last year, in Houston, Texas, the outfit was still running its victory lap after the defeat of the Schumer-Toomey-Manchin gun-control bill, celebrating not only the defeat of that proposal but also President Obama’s failure to to reinstate a federal ban on cosmetically interesting weapons and to establish a national limit on the size of magazines. This time, there was no such drama to serve as the backdrop — and it showed.
Since last year’s convention, the association has been on a winning streak: In Colorado, three anti-gun legislators have been recalled or scared into resigning; 65 of Michael Bloomberg’s 67 forays into electoral engineering have ended in failure, despite significant money being pushed into play; the White House’s first choice for surgeon general — a man who criticized the NRA and described firearms as a “health-care issue” — has been removed from consideration without so much as a filibuster; and, this year, federal courts in California and Illinois have taken significant steps toward the continued restoration of the Second Amendment. The bottom line is this: The NRA is winning, and, for now at least, the pushback has been light.
This year’s convention featured a notable shift of gear. Attendees were told, as if by rote, that this was the most dangerous time for gun rights in American history. But it didn’t quite ring true. Indeed, speakers spent less time discussing firearms than at any gun meeting I can remember. Setting the tone in his opening speech, Wayne LaPierre listed for the crowd the current threats to our core values. Our right to keep and bear arms is at risk, he said. But also on his list:
Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.
This theme was picked up by almost everyone who followed. Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, warned that “the Bill of Rights doesn’t come à la carte,” and then spent the lion’s share of time talking about the First Amendment. Senator Marco Rubio set the right to bear arms at the center of the American dream, positing that “the Second Amendment is about so much more than the right to bear arms — it is about preserving our God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bobby Jindal hit a similar note, saying all the right things about guns but hitting his stride when slamming the nanny state. (Michael Bloomberg and his ilk, Jindal explained, want to “pick your soft drink, your snack food, your vices, your home-security system, your health insurance, your electricity source, and your children’s school.”) Likewise Rick Santorum, who spoke only briefly about his wife’s enthusiasm for firearms and then moved swiftly on to other things.
Given the considerable overlap between the libertarian tendency and a jealous defense of the right to keep and bear arms, it is unsurprising that the rhetorical offerings veer more generally to the right. Nevertheless, the willingness of conference headliners to address other issues — while certainly virtuous in and of itself — presents a small challenge. Contrary to the paranoid sneering of America’s ever-impotent gun controllers, the National Rifle Association is not imbued with magical powers, nor can it avail itself of an unlimited supply of money and favors. The National Rifle Association is successful because it is popular, because its members are highly engaged, because it is defending a right that is enumerated in the nation’s founding document and a tradition that is cherished by members of both major political parties, because its opponents routinely embarrass themselves with their hysteria and with their lack of rudimentary knowledge about the topic at hand, and, most of all, because it is a single-issue organization that maintains its focus. But this year’s conference was not particularly focused; indeed, at times it was almost indistinguishable from the Republican National Convention. (One guest joked to me that this year’s event was “CPAC with a gun show.”) This raises an important question: Does the NRA wish to be the nation’s gun-rights sentinel, or does it wish to be a gun-focused player within the wider liberty movement?
Philosophically at least, there are few more crucial questions for a free country than whether its people may be armed. The intricacies of the law to one side, it makes little constitutional sense to have the paid employees of a sovereign people agitating to disarm their employers. The customary question of “why do you need that?” is best turned on its head by asking, “Why don’t you want me to have it?” Which is to say that when Wayne LaPierre and his ilk argue that the Second Amendment is a proxy for something bigger, they are correct. The basic liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights fit together nicely, each complementing the other. Freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; due process; privacy; the right to bear arms — all of these things are ultimately intended to ensure the same thing: that the state should not be serving as the arbiter and granter of the people’s liberties, and it certainly shouldn’t be picking and choosing which amendments to get behind and which to ignore.
The NRA, on the other hand? Well, that almost definitely should.
Watching the British protests against the second Gulf War in 2003, I was struck by the realization that, had I wished to, I would have been unable to join in with the dissenters. Take a look back at the photographs and you will notice that the rallies quickly escaped the confines of the issue du jour and mutated into something more generic. Prominently displayed were banners and signs that, among other things, advocated for unilateral nuclear disarmament, slammed Israel in brutal terms, warned hysterically about the perils of climate change, encouraged total animal liberation, wildly accused oil companies of all sorts of unspeakable evils, and depicted the elected leaders of the free world as little more than tin-pot dictators — the upshot of which was that many onlookers who had genuine sympathy with the opposition to the war in Iraq felt unable to join in. A moderately conservative friend of mine who predicted that the war would be a disaster explained that he was staying away from the melee because, while he hoped that Britain would abstain from taking part in military action, he did not wish to add his name to a host of causes that were not his own, or contribute his feet to the advancement of a rabble-rousing Leftism with which he had no broad sympathy whatsoever.
The NRA is winning — and thank goodness that it is. So effective has it been that it must be tempting for its acolytes to branch out, fighting the good fight on more front than one. It should resist the lure, and — even at this moment of unprecedented success — remember what it was that made it so effective in the first place: discipline.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.