The National Rifle Association (NRA) holds sway over the gun culture in America because of the services it provides to the community, and because of its strong communication program. The NRA provides firearms safety and hunter safety education to millions of Americans every year. Through its magazines, digital media, museums, and events, the group can reach millions more. 

The NRA uses these mediums to tell political stories.

In my new book, On Target: Gun Culture, Storytelling, and the NRA I argue that we can understand the NRA’s influence, not in terms of its spending, but in terms of its ability to bring out this community at key moments and places to vote, write their elected representatives, or donate money. This is the NRA’s grassroots advantage, and rural America plays a large role in this equation.

It may sound strange to say that the NRA is influential because they are good storytellers, but political scientists are increasingly realizing that narratives are an important part of human cognition, and thus politics. Stories help us to navigate the complex political world. They hold together political coalitions and help to launch and maintain social movements. Just as the stories of mass shootings at Columbine or, more recently, Parkland have galvanized a movement of gun control advocates, the NRA tells its own stories to its members.

They tell stories about good guys with guns, stories about America’s past, and stories about what guns mean to Americans. Rural America plays a significant role in these stories, given the NRA’s political base largely resides outside of big cities. In their magazines and online videos, the NRA idealizes rural life, telling stories of fathers and sons bonding in the duck blind, of friends plinking tin cans off of a wooden fence with their dad’s old .22, or of America’s heroes returning from the fight overseas to tend the farm and raise a family. 

The stories draw from the memory and legends of America’s rural past, from cowboy heroes to renowned hunters, trappers, and outdoorsmen. This is often contrasted with how the group presents urban America as a place of crime and danger, where allegedly inept Democrats struggle to contain criminal gangsters.

While doing research at the 2019 NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, I sat in a football stadium filled with excited NRA members and listened to the story of heroes like Stephen Willeford, the man who stopped the Sutherland Springs shooter with his own AR-15 carbine. Still wearing his cowboy hat, Willeford was the personification of a modern-day John Wayne, and commanded the audience’s attention.

The stories that movements tell naturally contain morals, in this case, policy solutions that the group wants the reader or listener to take from the story. The stories of mass shootings are complicated, and groups struggle in the media to retain control over what the public will take away from them. Explanations for mass shootings in the press have shifted over time, from discussions of violent video games and movies in the early 2000s to police tactics, mental health, and gun reform post-Parkland. Was the shooting in Uvalde, for example, the result of easy access to guns, or police ineptitude? Will school security help to stop the next Parkland, or gun control?

The NRA’s messages, on the other hand, have a consistent moral, that has remained unchanged for decades – guns are American, and guns save lives. Their detractors may see this as ideological, but this message discipline has helped to shape the politics of millions of Americans.

Noah S. Schwartz is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada. His research looks at gun policy and advocacy in the United States and Canada. His book, On Target: Gun Culture, Storytelling, and the NRA, is now available. 

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