Why Liberal Attacks on Gun Nuts Will Lose a Culture War

Nugent signing autographs at a National Rifle Association event Photograph by Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle via AP Photo

Watching liberal activists circle and poke at the National Rifle Association and even more extreme gun-rights groups reminds me of bear baiting. Except in this version of the spectacle, the bear wins. Two current examples from my e-mail in-box:

Ted Nugent spews crazy, racist venom, Media Matters has learned. At this late date, what sentient American citizen doesn’t know that the over-the-hill rocker and NRA director has a screw loose? Don’t get me wrong. The man is noxious. I’ve sat in the audience at NRA pep rallies as he intersperses ear-splitting electric guitar solos with spitting-angry rants about nonexistent conspiracies to take away his Glock pistols. In one recent dispatch, Media Matters breathlessly informed me that Nugent wrote a column for the paranoiac WND website in which he discussed how “the squawking poor just keep getting poorer, and as is always the case, they have no one to blame but themselves. Stupid is as stupid does.” In another alert, Media Matters noted a Nugent column opining that President Barack Obama’s election represented “the worst case of racism I have ever witnessed in my lifetime.” Insightful stuff.

Larry Pratt has scary ideas about firearms. Rolling Stone this week published a fascinating profile of the head of Gun Owners of America, which opposes any regulation whatsoever of firearms. The piece has been zealously embraced by activists such as Mark Kelly, husband of shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman. Kelly, co-founder with Giffords of Americans for Responsible Solutions, condemned Pratt for his assertions that widespread civilian ownership of firearms provides a check against the forces of tyranny. Pratt’s perspective becomes all the more troubling when one learns that he has written an essay, “What Does the Bible Say About Gun Control,” in which he asserted the following: “If Christ is not our King, we shall have a dictator to rule over us.” Connect the dots and Pratt seems to be insinuating that he favors overthrow of non-theocratic government.

Larry Pratt in Springfield, Virginia on March 29, 2013
Photograph by Christopher Gregory/The New York Time via Redux

I agree that it’s shameful that the NRA tolerates, let alone promotes, a nut like Nugent. I also agree that Pratt represents a dangerous strain of religiously based insurrectionism that runs through some fringes of American society. What I question is whether the gun-control movement should intermingle calls for modest regulatory changes—limits on ammunition magazine capacity, for example—with engagement in a broader (and ultimately futile) culture war that the likes of Nugent and Pratt relish.

An alternate approach, strangely eschewed by the gun-control movement, would frame calls for additional regulation as an element of smart anti-crime policy. Such an argument would go like this: Let’s try policy X to address the problem of crime Y. The argument would be supported by social science and testimony from law enforcement officials.

Or gun-control advocates could frame an anti-crime argument this way: Over the past quarter-century, many large cities, such as New York, have sharply reduced violent crime, including gun crime. What has changed in New York, and how can those changes be replicated in other places?

The reason that advocates on both sides of the debate prefer to hurl ad hominem invective and invoke conspiracy theories, I suspect, is that such appeals are a good way to rouse the faithful—and to raise money. Ted Nugent and Larry Pratt learned that lesson a long time ago and they stick by it.

Liberals who fight on their foes’ preferred rhetorical battleground may get some fellow-thinkers to open their checkbooks. But since pro-gun enthusiasts tend to hew to their positions with greater intensity, culture war favors the NRA and Pratt’s Gun Owners of America. Bear baiting doesn’t advance the search for policies likely to reduce street crime—or prevent the next mass shooting by a suicidal 20-year-old determined to express his rage by destroying a batch of innocents, along with himself.

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