Column: Does the NRA Mistrust Democracy?

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Mr. Spencer is an assistant professor of history at Northwest Missouri State University.

As someone who often writes about local topics in my historical research, I seldom am inspired by current events at the local level. Correspondingly, when I write for the History News Network, I tend to try to focus on current events using a rather long-term historical lens. However, the recent move by the legislature in my home state of Missouri to liberalize gun laws has changed this for the moment. I also must admit that the current debate over Michael Bellesiles's Arming America that has erupted on the HNN website also got me to thinking about this as well. Therefore, I'm going to focus on much more recent and local history in this article.

My topic today was virtually ignored by our supposedly"liberal" mainstream press three years ago. By the way, with the emergence and widespread popularity of the Fox (Faux) News Network and the corporatization of our major media outlets, how can anyone argue our mainstream media is liberal anymore? How can anyone who lived through the events of the Clinton impeachment, the election of 2000 and the flag-waving of the last few months ever believe that? And we all know that Bernard Goldberg and David Brock (in Brock's case both in the past and at present) are just in it for the money anyway so don't believe anything they say. But I digress.

I am going to write about the little-reported failure of the"right to carry" concealed weapon law in Missouri in April of 1999. Like Michael Bellesiles's controversial (and political hot-potato) book, the defeat of right to carry in Missouri challenges a lot of the assumptions about the supposedly pro-gun culture in America. The battle over the concealed weapon law, called Proposition B on the April 1999 ballot, was fierce. The National Rifle Association (NRA) as well as most of the major Republican politicians (including U.S. Senators John Ashcroft and Kit Bond) in Missouri lined up to support Proposition B. Ashcroft even recorded NRA-financed commercials for the measure. Opponents of Proposition B included Missouri's Governor Mel Carnahan (who would defeat Ashcroft in November of 2000 despite the fact he was no longer among the living) as well as several liberal and anti-gun groups in St. Louis and Kansas City.

It was, in many ways, a David versus Goliath battle. The anti-Proposition B forces had very little money to spend on advertising (under $300,000) and the NRA poured several million dollars worth of advertising into the state's media markets to promote the measure. One couldn't turn on the radio anywhere in the state during the spring of 1999 without hearing a pro-Proposition B ad. The same could not be said for ads opposing the measure, which were seldom heard outside of St. Louis and Kansas City. Considering the conservative reputation of the state and the huge advertising money disparity, the measure was expected to pass easily.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Prop B celebration. On April 6, 1999, Proposition B was defeated -- which shocked the measure's proponents who had expected an overwhelming victory. It was defeated by a fairly narrow margin of about 44,000 votes out of a total of 1.3 million. Opponents of right to carry legislature claim the defeat of the measure in an"off-cycle" election shows Missourians do not support such laws and contend that the margin of defeat in a much higher turnout election (such as a general election in November) would be much greater --especially if opponents had a larger advertising budget. Proponents of right to carry claim they won 104 of Missouri's 114 counties, so their views represent the true"hearts of souls" of Missourians. Of course, the 10 counties that voted against the measure (including, by the way, my own sparsely populated rural county) have a combined population much greater than that of the combined population of the 104 that favored it but that doesn't seem to make much difference to those who often use this geographic argument to claim they"really" won in April of 1999.

What this vote revealed was a profound rural-urban split in the opinions of Missourians on this issue. Urban Missourians, who I would argue have a great deal more experience with gun crime, were against the measure while rural Missourians, who probably don't have such experience, supported it. Therefore, it is no surprise that Missouri's legislature is now proposing to revive right to carry since rural Missouri is actually over-represented in the legislature by a factor of around 2-1.

Regardless, the Missouri defeat caused gun advocacy groups to change strategies. Before, they had insisted that Missourians wanted concealed weapons laws and generally welcomed plebiscites on gun issues. Since the defeat of Proposition B, the gun lobby in Missouri no longer lobbies for referendums anymore. As evidence of this shift, just a couple of weeks ago, a referendum proposal for right to carry was defeated in the legislature fairly soundly. In fact, the argument for right to carry in Missouri now is pretty astonishing -- and very disingenuous. Right to carry proponents claim that, like during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s that led to a recognition of the civil rights of African-Americans and women, the average citizen is biased against those who now advocate the" civil rights of gun owners." Like in the 1960s, this argument goes, the average citizen cannot be trusted to be true to the Constitution and support civil (gun) rights, so the gun lobby no longer trusts them. As Marc Anderson, a supporter of right to carry put it just the other day in a legislative hearing,"If you let the people of Missouri speak on civil rights, women and blacks might not be voting today." Isn't that an amazing argument? Of course, I'm sure most of these lily white conservative gun rights supporters in Missouri would've been in favor of supporting the civil rights of African-Americans in the 1960s, right? Sigh.

Therefore, to avoid involving actual Missouri voters, the NRA and the gun lobby in the state is now working exclusively with state legislators. It appears that even the NRA knows that democracy will likely lead them down the road to defeat so they are sending lobbyists to grease the palms of legislators with campaign contributions. However, much to the NRA's relief it now appears the Missouri legislature is going to give them the law they were seeking in 1999. While Missouri was the only state bold enough to ask its citizens' opinion on this issue, it now appears the legislature is quite happy to ignore it. The last potential hope that the will of the people will be respected is that Missouri's Governor, Bob Holden, will veto the measure once it is passed. However, he's shown signs of waffling in the past few days.

I would argue that the defeat of the concealed weapon law in 1999 shows that even in a fairly conservative state like Missouri that citizens are not in favor of overly conservative gun laws -- even in a state that, I might remind you, sent John Ashcroft to the Senate! In fact, in a related side note, Ashcroft's support for the measure certainly helped contribute to his defeat a year later when voters in urban areas voted overwhelmingly for his opponent who, it must be added, had no pulse. Everywhere one looked in the fall of 2000 in rural areas and small towns in Missouri there were NRA-distributed bumper stickers that said"Ashcroft for Freedom" on the back of every dilapidated pickup -- even those of tax protesters that didn't have license plates. So, while the gun lobby clearly backed Ashcroft, most Missouri voters didn't. In another related development, it also is interesting to point out that while Missourians voted for Bush by a significant margin in 2000, they appear to have rejected Ashcroft as being too far to the right of even Missouri's political"mainstream." However, Bush does not appear to have taken much note of this fact when appointing him Attorney-General a few weeks later. The defeat of the concealed weapon law in Missouri certainly challenges the assumption that voters in Midwestern states are overwhelmingly in support of right to carry. At the very least it shows that Americans, even in the right-of-center heartland, can have different opinions on the issue.

Of course, ultimately the saddest thing may be that, even though the voters in Missouri have spoken on the issue, the legislature is likely to ignore such annoying things as the people's opinion. The right to carry bill is rolling through both houses of the legislature as we speak. I'm sure the bill is being lubricated along by significant cash contributions by the NRA to state legislators. It should be no surprise that state legislatures are getting in on the action since we currently have an administration whose energy, economic, and tax policies are set by the highest bidder in campaign contributions. The NRA is going to get its law. They've paid for this one twice. It would be terrible to disappoint them again -- the opinion of the people be damned. It certainly tells you just how much the NRA and the gun lobby now believes in democracy -- at least if they think democracy stands in the way of getting what they want.

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annonymous - 2/12/2003

I agree with Mr. Mount. How could any person who has ever watched CNN or read newspapers in this day and age actually believe that our press is becoming the slightest bit conservative. Although not as liberal as during the Vietnam War, there is no educated reasoning to tell us that our press is not largely biased toward the liberal side of issues.
Sorry to break it to you Professor, but the press, although maybe not quite as liberal as you and your friends, is still quite biased.

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Alec Lloyd - 5/8/2002

The hypothesis gets even more untenable when one notes that as the gun supply of the United States has increased, crime has fallen.

Conversely, firearm violence has dramatically increased in those Western nations that have embraced gun control.

Thus the snide assertions that "guns cause crime" are easily refuted once the facts are examined.

If more academics focused on facts rather than polemics, this debate would have been resolved long ago. Alas, it is easier to throw phrases like "gun nut" around and demonize those who disagree with you than actually face the issue squarely.

Andrew Frechtling - 5/7/2002

Dear G. Whizz --

You raise an interesting point, but perhaps not in the way you intend. Are the major media more likely to be "right" about guns - or any other social issue - than you or I, because they have vast amounts of resources to promulgate their point of view?

The Washington Post once ran seventy-seven pro-gun control editorials in a row. How much do you think the NRA would have to spend to match that?


Allan Walstad - 5/6/2002

"No other modern industrial country has anywhere near the rate of gun violence of the United States".

Hypothesis: it's the guns.

Test the hypothesis:

1. If it's the guns, then there is no particular reason for non-gun violence in the US to be especially high, in comparison with other countries. But in fact, it is. For example, rape doesn't involve guns very often, but the international comparisons show a similar pattern in the rate of rape as in the rate of homicide.

2. A century ago, New York already had restrictions on gun ownership, while Britain did not. If it's the guns, then violent crime should have been higher in London than in New York City. But New York's was higher then, too.

3. Within the US, there are great differences, geographically and demographically, in the rate of gun ownership. If it's the guns, one would expect violent crime rates to track the gun ownership rates rather clearly. They do not.

4. There are vast differences historically, aside from guns, between the US and other wealthy industrialized countries. We can try to minimize these, analytically, by comparing northern tier states of the US with adjoining Canadian provinces. Since Canada has much more restrictive gun laws, the Canadian provinces should have consistently lower violent crime rates--if it's the guns. But some do and others don't. In fact, a good example of this sort of comparison is offered by a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine a decade ago, that ironically was touted as demonstrating the efficacy of Canada's gun control. Comparing two ostensibly very similar cities--Seattle and Vancouver--it was noted that Seattle's homicide rate was nearly twice as high. But the difference was completely explained by demographic differences, together with known statistical differences in homicide rate among the relevant ethnic groups.

Those are a few of the reasons why the "It's the guns" hypothesis is untenable.

Alec Lloyd - 5/6/2002

The very phrase "gun violence" reeks of junk science and scare tactics. There is no evidence that suicides are a function of gun ownership; they are used simply to make guns look more "bad."

Furthermore, "gun deaths" also include cases of justifiable homicide, which while unfortunate, are hardly indicative of random violence. Sadly, such number twisting is part and parcel of the gun-control lobby.

Gun ownership has risen markedly in the last 30 years, yet the murder rate has fallen (and continues to drop). The "guns cause crime" theory gets even harder to sustain when one recognizes that more than 20 states adopted shall-issue laws during that time is well.

International comparisons are mixed, but it is interesting to note that Britain's violent crime rate has far surpassed that of the US for the first time since such records have been kept and while the American murder rate is still higher, its downward trend sharply contrasts with Britain's upward surge. If and when Britain's murder rate exceeds that of the US, will gun control proponents admit their error or will they continue to substitute dubious straw men in lieu of an sound argument?

More to the topic at hand, it is interesting that only the NRA's lobbying efforts have a sinister connotation; those of rival groups with far smaller memberships are presumably more "noble" and "right."

Michigan recently adopted a shall-issue law. So far, none of the dire predictions have come true. It's been nine months and not a single permit holder has shot his boss, children, wife or decided to settle a disagreement with bullets rather than words.

Public opinion has reversed itself on the law. Prior to its implementation, polls showed 35 percent if favor, 50 percent opposed with the remainder undecided. Recent polls show 50 percent support with only 35 percent opposition.

Because of this, gun-control groups abandoned a ballot initiative to repeal the law. They changed tactics and have resorted to a series of local ordinances that are ending up in state courts. Now who's anti-democratic?

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/6/2002

As an example, I live in Boise. Our murder rate for 1999 and
2000 was 0.9/100,000 per year. That's lower than the rates
for England & Wales (1.1/100,000/year) and Scotland (1.9/100,000/year), and much lower than most European countries.
Yet we have some of the laxest gun control laws in the U.S.

Lonnie Jaycox - 5/6/2002

Look at: Russia, Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico--these are all countries with very strict gun control laws AND high rates of "gun violence". There are other places with lax gun laws and almost no "gun violence". Most "gun violence" in the US is by suicide, when one looks at Japan and many northern European countries one sees very high suicide rates in societies with little or no gun ownership. Violent crime committed with guns in the US is not a widespread problem. I think something like 80+% of our murders are committed in less than 5% of our zip-codes. The overwhelming majority of US citizens live in areas with lower overall crime rates than exist in most cities in Europe.

J. Quepublic - 5/5/2002

The "fringeness" may be debatable. The lunacy is less so. The U.S. has gun laws that are incredibly lax by international standards and a rate of gun violence many times higher than that of most other nations. It requires a peculiar kind of American lunacy to sustain a denial of the obvious linkage.

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/5/2002

The NRA is a lunatic fringe? Hmmm. President Clinton gave
NRA credit for changing the balance of Congress in 1994.
The NRA has more than four million members. That's a BIG
lunatic fringe. Perhaps you need to redefine what you mean
by lunatic fringe.

"the NRA’s tactic of lobbying state legislators behind the voters’ backs." Why, I've never heard of such a thing!
Organizations actually lobbying legislators! And doing it
without running full page ads in every newspaper every day
to inform everyone in the state that they were doing so!
What is the world coming to? :-)

I hope that this isn't a surprise, but this is EXACTLY what
all groups do, including the Brady Campaign, and all other
gun control groups. If Professor Spencer needs to "alert" people to this, perhaps he needs to "alert" people to the
existence of air, water, and sky.

J. Quepublic - 5/5/2002

What makes American democracy less bad than conceivable alternatives is indeed our system of checks and balances. The U.S. Bill of Rights and the courts protect liberty against the “tyranny of the majority”, and majority rule (e.g. of legislators and in referenda) protect the public against lunatic fringe minorities such as the Flat Earth Society and the NRA.

Sometimes majority rule and the Bill of Rights can work in tandem. In Missouri, for instance, the NRA was first stopped by the voters, and now (it very much appears) Professor Spencer is exercising his First Amendment rights to alert people outside Missouri to the NRA’s tactic of lobbying state legislators behind the voters’ backs.

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/5/2002

Democracy is a bad thing. That's why we have a Bill of Rights,
three counterbalancing branches of the federal government, and
a clearly defined division between the federal and state
government powers.

I suggest that the professor spend some time reading and
understanding the Miranda decision, Brown v. Board of Education,
Mapp v. Ohio, and the dozens of other landmark decisions in American history that have overturned democracy in defense of
the rights of the individual.

In some ideal world, the electorate would be made up of intelligent, well-educated people, voting for the good of the society. But remember that by definition, 49.9999% of the population is below average in intelligence. Even the intelligent ones are astonishingly ignorant on a wide range of topics--and the matter of concealed weapons law is one of those examples. If the concealed weapon law that Missouri voters were asked to approve had been a completely new idea, I could understand and even applaud their refusal their decision.

But similar laws are now in effect in 25 states, and the results are clear: such laws do not increase murder rates (see the paper by Dave Kopel and myself in the Spring, 1995 Tennessee Law Review, available at http://www.claytoncramer.com/shall-issue.html ), and there is a strong case to be made from Professor Lott's work that such laws reduce murder, rape, and aggravated assault rates.

Concealed weapon regulation has a long and curious history in the United States. Complete bans (in the style of Missouri) are leftovers from attempts to suppress a particular form of "honor violence" in the 19th century. My book _Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform_ (Praeger Press, 1999) will tell you a great deal about it. Alternatively, http://www.claytoncramer.com/duelinganddeliverance.pdf provides a popular synopsis.

Discretionary concealed handgun permit laws have a considerably uglier history, since they were passed as part the postbellum effort to disarm freedmen, and make them more amenable to peonage. See my Winter 1995 Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy article on the subject of "The Racist Roots of Gun Control" available at http://www.law.ukans.edu/jrnl/cramer.htm .

I hope Professor Spencer teaches world history at Northwest Missouri State University. I shudder to think of someone so ignorant of the tension between democracy and individual rights teaching American history.

N. Acronist - 5/4/2002

Those bloody stupid Brits. Can't they see how much lower their murder rate would be if they only had 4+ million brave artisans, skillfully grinding their own gun barrels, and wisely using their mathematical talents to educate Parliament as to how effective guns are at saving lives ? If only each American could carry his own little pocket-size tactical nuclear device, then we'd be even better protected from our misguided gun controllers and their liberal media stooges. Unfortunately, it's so hard sometimes to get the grassroots to see the light.

Lonnie Jaycox - 5/4/2002

Whatever the NRA may be, it certainly is not the lobby for gun makers. What is so strange to see is people who normally applaud grassroots democratic action so vehemently denounce the NRA. Whether you agree agree with them or not, they and AARP are the pre-eminent grassroots political action groups in the US today. The NRA gets no foundation money, and little of the money comes from gunmakers. They are 4+ million people putting up non tax deductable contributions to fight for something they believe in. When one looks at the finances of the the gun control groups, one sees foundation and corporate money as far as the eye can see.

As far as violence. One is seeing more of it everywhere-regardless of gun laws. Look at Russia. Violent crime in England is way up. I think violent crime levels in a society have very litle to do with the presence or absence of guns.
Not ot mention that some of the safest places in the US have no or little gun control. Sometimes it corresponds sometimes it doesn't.

Square1 - 5/4/2002

1. No other modern industrial country has anywhere near the rate of gun violence of the United States (even if "other country" is a complicated idea fopped on us by devious liberals).

2. No other modern industrial country has a gun manufacturers' lobby as effective as the NRA.

3. Point 2 has no causal influence on Point 1.

AL MOUNT - 5/4/2002

Mr. Walstad,
Very well written rebuttal sir.

Thank you,
Al Mount

Allan Walstad - 5/3/2002

If I ever worried that gun-control proponents might have fact and reason on their side, I am grateful to some of the comments above for putting such doubts to rest. Sorry, folks, but sarcasm only gets you so far ("gun nuts have landed", etc.). Eventually you have to make your case on the merits of the issue--but the legal scholarship and criminological evidence are lining up on the side of the gun-rights advocates.

Many states in recent years have adopted right-to-carry laws. The proposals are always met with alarmist rhetoric about how a bloodbath will ensue: fender-bender shootouts, etc. That experience has proven unkind to such prognostications has not yet rendered them entirely ineffective in the political arena, particularly when trumpeted by anti-gun big-city newspapers and other major media outlets.

So, right-to-carry lost by a narrow margin in an off-year election, and it annoys Mr. Spencer that the issue has been raised again in the Missouri legislature. Well, sir, I'm sure we'd all like to see contests come to an end automatically just as soon as our side is ahead.

Alec Lloyd - 5/3/2002

How fascinating: anyone who supports the right to self-defense (or even a fair discussion of it) must, by definition, by a "gun nut." Well, aren't we mature scholars…

The thrust of this article is clearly one-sided as it fails to analyze the actions of other political groups. Abortion rights activits are some of the most anti-democratic out there, relying on court decisions rather than referenda or legislatures to implement their policies.

More to the point, gun-control advocates have also turned to the courts through gun lawsuits, attempting to do through the judiciary what they cannot achieve in Congress or the statehouse.

The NRA, by contrast, avoids the courts as much as possible, preferring direct action. Love them or hate them, lobbying the legislature is far more democratic than packing a court bench.

Right...Uh-huh - 5/2/2002

Houston, the gun nuts have landed. I repeat, the gun nuts have landed.

G. Whizz - 5/2/2002

This is a good point. I forgot that the more money you spend, the more right you are.

Andrew Frechtling - 5/2/2002

"It was, in many ways, a David versus Goliath battle. The anti-Proposition B forces had very little money to spend on advertising (under $300,000) and the NRA poured several million dollars worth of advertising into the state's media markets to promote the measure."

Don Kates has addressed this issue in "The Great American Gun Debate" (coauthored with Gary Kleck, published by Pacific Research Institute for Public policy, 1997). He points out that anti-gun forces have such a hammerlock on the media that the NRA and other pro-gun forces have to spend disproportionately to be heard.

As I recall, then-Gov Carnahan was opposed to CCW reform in Missouri, and his daughter was active in the campaign against Prop B. The major Missouri newspapers were against Prop B to and repeatedly editorialized against its passage. That it should be so narrowly defeated is a tribute to the NRA's powers of persuasion as much as to its willingness to back up its beliefs with money.

Dave E. Krogett - 5/2/2002

Who needs any meteors, libra or conservtive ? I been shootin bear and cougar since I was kneehigh to a grasshopper without no leave from no fox networks. Bagged me one big bruin jes the other day. On I-35 heading south he was, little ways past San Anton. If them Missoura libras and devotees of modun philisteens like Mister Abraham Lincoln and Mister Frederick Jackson Turner think they a-gonna take way our flintlocks and let a buncha commie critters take over our fine upstandin’ skools, they gotem a ‘nother then commin. Over my dead body, Santa Ana !

AL MOUNT - 5/2/2002

Mr. Spencer must be "inhaling" some good stuff if he thinks the media is not liberal anymore. Just because Fox News Network still isn't in a "Clinton Love Fest", like CNN and the other main stream media, I hardly believe they could be call conservative.
Mr. Spencer does mention the small majority (less than 3.5%) that defeated Prop B,
what he fails to mention is the vast amount of voter fraud that took place in the city of St. Louis that election.
Many "dead people" and even some actual "canines", registered and voted against Prop B.
Like other liberals, Mr. Spencer thinks us "country bumpkins" are not intelligent enough to carry a concealed weapon.
Al Mount
Antonia, MO.

N. Acronist - 5/1/2002

Let's hear it for all the Great and Serious Causes that never gave up: Free Silver, Separate but Equal, Vital Bodily Fluids, George W. Bush's plan to downsize the Pentagon, and the right of every redblooded patriot to tote his own bazooka !

Daniel Gregory - 5/1/2002

When did any serious cause, right or left, give up after a setback at the polls?

Dan Gregory

Rhett Nack - 5/1/2002

So even the great hunter T.R. was a closet liberal oppressor gun controlist ?! Better get his treacherous face off Rushmore in a hurry ! It just goes to show how we'd really be better off without those other nine amendments. And a President and a Congress, who needs them when we got the Great Charlatan to lead our noble posse ?

Matthew J. Franck - 5/1/2002

Yes, and there are no people in "special interest groups," are there--especially in that nasty NRA. Funny how the folks we disagree with belong to "special interest groups"--an expression that Teddy Roosevelt seems to have coined in one of his more demagogic moments.

Sage - 4/30/2002

Yeah, I mean like you know special interest groups don't fund political campaigns, people fund political campaigns.

Matthew J. Franck - 4/30/2002

So the NRA lost in the 1999 referendum, and now turns to the elected state legislature to make its case. Can Prof. Spencer explain what is "undemocratic" about this?

Matt Franck

J. Bartlett - 4/29/2002

It is a minor detail, but the acronym "NRA" is never defined in this piece. Based on the actions and statements of the organization with those initials (in this episode and others), "No Reasoning Ability" is perhaps the most aptly fitting phrase.