Boston University

In the Name of Guns: Nonviolent Resistance and the NRA by Rachel Burke @ Boston University

In 2013, President Obama addressed the nation with tears in his eyes regarding the massacre of twenty first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary school. Now, it is 2017, and the death toll at Sandy Hook has been topped by Orlando which has been topped by Las Vegas, making it “the deadliest mass shooting in US history.” The nation hears a call for gun control. Obama says this cycle “has become all too routine.” (Obama, 2015)  In an interview with NBC news at the end of his term, he remains appalled at the unsupportive response of Congress. Again and again, conservatives deny legislation requesting stricter background checks even when 9 out of 10 Americans are for it. (Holt, 2017) With an issue like gun violence, there is no way to remove emotion from the equation, but with President Trump in office “emotion” takes on another meaning: a populist’s appeal to the public and a public shaped and intermingled by members of the National Rifle Association.

With staunch Republican rule at the federal level, “it is certainly true that democracy unchecked by liberalism can slide into excessive majoritarianism or oppressive populism.” (Berman) Checks and balances of the federal government may be threatened not only by legislation and court ruling, but perhaps most extremely by “the rise in Trumpian populism.” (Lieberman et. al) Jan Werner Müller says “the word populism remains mostly with the idea of a genuine egalitarian left-wing politics in potential conflict with the stances of a Democratic Party that, in the eyes of populist critics, has become too centrist.” (Müller) Trump’s populism holds traits of classical populism: appeal to the ordinary public, creation of an enemy, and a declaration of oneself as the sole supporter of the public’s interest. But Trump takes these qualities a step further, creating the oppressive populism that Berman speaks of.

Even though it had impressive success during the Obama administration, Trump’s oppressive populism is a perfect climate for the NRA to thrive in. A 2008 essay by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth argues that nonviolent resistance is more effective in the long term than is violent resistance. Though this study applies to specific, extreme cases of resistance, it is a helpful lens to look through when examining the NRA. In a recent episode of his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver spotlights the NRA and discusses why the organization is so prolific.

“Here we are again. After another mass shooting, with weak legislation doomed to failure. And there is clearly a disconnect between public opinion […] and any practical action in Washington. It is pretty clear what is standing between those two things, and it is the National Rifle Association. “ (Oliver, 2017) Unfaltering, nonviolent resistance is what protects the NRA’s cause. The whole situation seems contradictory: an organization that is centered around guns is the kingpin of nonviolent resistance. But in a way, this makes sense. If the NRA were to behave, or resist, gun control through means even nearly deemed violent, this would simply prove the point of its opposition. Furthermore, its resistance to gun control is consistent: members are active even when there is no uproar.

For gun control to be passed, those citizens that believe in gun control must out-resist the NRA. The public needs to stand up to the populist. The nine out of ten people who support background checks need to realize that Donald Trump does not, and say something about it. At the end of his episode on the NRA, John Oliver instructs his listeners to call their representatives today and remind them that this is an issue the American public is serious about, and then call them tomorrow, and also the next day until something has changed. Nonviolent resistance is dependent on planning, deliberating and perseverance. Americans cannot stand by and wait for another Las Vegas, which after only a month has been forgotten by so many.

Illustration by Rick Calzi, “Dying Breed.”


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