Washington’s lobbying behemoth—the National Rifle Association—is at its weakest in years, thanks to financial scandal that has riveted the organization. Gun control advocates have hailed this as an opportunity unimaginable just a few years ago; they assume gun politics without the NRA would be a power vacuum where they could make headway on gun reform.
But what if, instead, it is a powder keg?
The protests taking place this Monday in Virginia provide some powerful insights into what a post-NRA gun politics might look like.
Once a Republican stronghold and haven for gun rights, the Virginia legislature shifted dramatically: Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the Governorship—and they won, in part, on their vow to reform the state’s gun laws. Already they’ve started to make good on that electoral mandate, with the House passing laws that would strengthen background checks, reduce handgun purchases to one per month, and—perhaps most consequential for the future of gun regulations in Virginia—end state pre-emption that kept localities from passing laws more restrictive than state-level laws.
While the National Rifle Association has condemned these gun regulations in strong terms, they’ve also distanced themselves from the protests in Virginia this Monday. Rather, a different organization is behind the pro-gun rights march on Virginia’s state capitol, one that most Americans have probably never even heard of: the Virginia Citizens Defense League, joined by other organizations and militias spanning the spectrum from pro-gun to anti-government to white supremacist. Reports are suggesting a crowd of 22,000 gathered from across the US—as far as I can tell, an unprecedented number of participants in any pro-gun rights protest in recent decades.
This state-level activity shouldn’t come as a surprise. For decades, state-level gun rights organizations, such as Virginia Citizens Defense League, Arizona Citizens Defense League, and Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners (to name a few), have massively transformed their state policies, and they have done so at times—especially at the onset of these organizations—with little to no help from the NRA. As a result, these organizations have created a tight-knit group of activists who often overlap with other organizations, including militias like the Oath Keepers and the Michigan Militia. These activists often have an intricate knowledge of local and state politics, unparalleled access to state and local politicians, and they are not beholden to anything other than the agendas that they choose to pursue. That means that before the NRA opted to endorse open carry or permit-less carry, many of these state-level organizations were already pushing forward on these items deemed by the nation’s “premier” gun lobby as too radical for mainstream gun rights.
While the NRA stands for “National Rifle Association,” in many of these pro-gun circles it also is short for “Negotiate Rights Away.” Serious gun rights activists will conjure up examples of compromise laws and back-door backpedaling that show, in their minds, that the organization isn’t nearly as dedicated to protecting gun rights as its “no comprise” reputation among gun control advocates would suggest. And, despite its vociferous rhetoric suggesting otherwise, the NRA has generally shied away from endorsing the kind of politics of public protest associated with the Left; they want to be the ones in suits talking to lobbyists, rather than the ones marching in the streets.
Many of these state and local pro-gun organizations, however, take a different tact. They are done with the rules of the game set by the NRA. As compared to the NRA, they aren’t nearly as afraid of the political ramifications—or the optics—of armed marches. They don’t shy away from pursuing legislative ends that seem impossibly pro-gun to the mainstream gun lobby. And, they are as interested in getting the laws they want on the books as they are in delegitimizing the laws they don’t want. This is evident through the surge in institutionalized non-compliance in the form of Second Amendment sanctuaries (I’m going to be talking about non-compliance and impunity in an upcoming blog, as it dovetails with my research for my new book Policing the Second Amendment, out this fall with Princeton University Press.)
Those celebrating the potential collapse of the NRA fail to appreciate that NRA has defined not just what gun rights consists of but how gun rights should be secured politically. Understandably, the diminishing power of the NRA has emboldened—and will continue to embolden—gun control advocates to pursue aggressive changes in gun law.
But if they do, as Virginia shows us, they won’t be doing so in a power vacuum. True, many gun owners will accommodate these changes—22,000 gun owners still represent a small sliver of gun owners in Virginia let alone the US. But 22,000 committed, organized, and highly motivated activists, as we know from other social movements, is enough to impact policy and, perhaps more critically, reshape the rules of politicking. As advocates for tightened gun regulations make good on their electoral promises amid the flailing power of the NRA and Trump fans the flames of political acrimony, you can expect more pro-gun marches, more noncompliance with gun-restricting laws, and less “gun politics as usual.”