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May 01, 2014 11:09 AM Gun Rights as the Equalizer

By Ed Kilgore

The other day David Frum penned a column about the power of the gun lobby and its cultural roots that deserves a broader reading. After posing the question as to why expansion of the right to own and use firearms has been so much more successful than other conservative causes, Frum suggests it has become an emotional touchstone for a very embattled minority that views itself as exceptionally threatened:

[The NRA’s] string of victories was scored as gun ownership in America tumbled. Only about one-third of American households now own a gun, compared to about one-half in 1973. Much of this decline can be traced to the fading of hunting as an American pastime. Only about 6 percent of Americans hunt even once in a year. That’s just slightly more than the number who attended a ballet performance: 3.9 percent.
Yet a smaller group of gun owners manages to exercise more political power. As gun ownership has dwindled, the remaining cohort has coalesced into a compact and self-conscious minority, for whom guns represent an ideology even more than a sport or hobby.
Republicans are nearly twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats are.
White Americans are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhite Americans.
Among Americans under age 30, only about one in five owns a gun. Among Americans over age 50, one in three owns a gun.
Nearly half of men own a gun; only 13 percent of women do.
Southerners are 50 percent more likely to own a gun than Easterners, the South being the most gun-owning region and the East being the least.
Add it all up, and the core gun constituency looks a lot like the Tea Party on the firing range: Two-thirds of American households own no guns at all. The vast majority of households that own a gun own only one. Opposing them, a small minority—about 6 percent of American households—have amassed 65 percent of the nation’s privately owned firearms. That group is very white, very Southern, and very conservative indeed.
This small group is seized by a profound sense of loss and alienation from the American majority.

As such, this minority naturally doesn’t put much faith in conventional politics, which in some respects will always reflect majority sentiment. And even the financial power of conservative elites aligned with them provides relatively small comfort: the rich can protect themselves from the chaos engendered by those people with “gated communities and doorman buildings,” not to mention private schools and personal networks.

Gun advocates depict a government that is increasingly remote and alien from everyday concerns, if not outright hostile and menacing. This is a widespread point of view in post-economic-crisis United States. Most conservative causes promise to bring the government closer to the people by having government do less for the people. For obvious reasons, that’s not an easy sell.
Gun advocates offer a very different message. They promise to put the means of self-emancipation from a dangerous world right into one’s own hands. LaPierre again: “In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive, to protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want.”
At a time when so many people—and especially so many white men—feel devalued and undermined by powerful unseen but inimical forces, gun advocates put the power to deal death at the touch of a button right into their supporters’ hands. Nobody feels powerless when he holds a gun.

It’s no accident that Second Amendment enthusiasts constantly hint—and sometimes flatly assert—that their cause is based on an inherent “right of revolution” against “tyranny,” a term the gun-bearing minority, conveniently enough, may define as it wishes (for some, it may be Obamacare or affirmative action or a legal right to abortion—or even federal grazing fees). Guns have become the supreme symbol of a contingent acceptance of authority—which may at any point be withdrawn via acts of self-righteous violence.

The nineteenth century German Social Democratic leader August Bebel once famously described anti-semitism as “the socialism of fools.” For similar reasons, the gun rights cause has become the ultimate right-wing response to perceived inequality. Yes, the “Tea Party at the firing range” may lose elections or suffer the indignity of putting up with loafers and looters and hippies and Muslims and feminists. But in the end, a gun is always the Equalizer.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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