What can we learn from decades of NRA editorials? Ask this guy

The NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Photo via Joe Loong/Flickr.

FOR THE JULY 2002 ISSUE OF AMERICAN RIFLEMAN, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote an editorial opposing efforts by a bipartisan group of US senators to close the gun show loophole. LaPierre’s editorial frames the gun show legislation as an identity issue, one shared by the NRA and its supporters. Would-be gun owners are “peaceable Americans” with an interest in “innocent, honest commerce.” The “anti-gun rights crowd,” by turn, is made up of “our enemies,” whose support of such legislation will target “law-abiding people” and “will ultimately touch every one of us.” The editorial concludes with a rallying cry for like-minded supporters to “write, call or email your Senators and Members of Congress and tell them: No gun control.”

Such rhetoric is a critical component of the NRA’s political influence, says Matthew Lacombe, a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University. Lacombe, the author of a study called “The Political Weaponization of Gun Owners,” reviewed nearly 80 years of editorials from the NRA’s monthly American Rifleman magazine, which has a circulation of more than 1.9 million. “The editorials show that for decades, the NRA has cultivated an image of gun owners as having a particular set of positive characteristics,” Lacombe wrote for The Washington Post in October, days after a mass shooting killed 58 people and injured scores more in Las Vegas. “They are reputable, law-abiding, honest, patriotic citizens who are self-sufficient and love freedom.” Efforts at gun control legislation are framed as “an affront to gun owners and their very identities”—identities that the NRA arguably shaped for them.

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For his research, Lacombe created an original digital archive of American Rifleman (not yet publicly available) and scrutinized NRA editorials, which are written by NRA leadership, for evidence of what he calls a “politicized social identity.” He also reviewed decades of letters to the editors of four major American papers—The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Arizona Republic, and The Chicago Tribune—to see where traces of that identity surfaced. Such letters “are especially useful,” Lacombe writes, “because they are written by the specific population of interest here: ordinary citizens who are politically engaged.”

Lacombe is 29 years old, and expects to defend his dissertation in the spring of 2019. He became an NRA member “for research purposes,” and adds that he got “a sweet pocket knife out of it.” He doesn’t own a gun, but has gone shooting, which he says he enjoyed. He spoke with CJR about how the NRA leverages ideational resources to its political advantage, and about creating what may be the most comprehensive digital database of the NRA’s most popular magazine. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

I’m not the first scholar to study the American Rifleman. But I do think I have, perhaps, the only text database of its editorials, and maybe the most comprehensive digital database of the magazine at large.

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How is it you came to focus your research on the NRA?

It wasn’t a specific interest in gun politics that led me to study the NRA. I’m interested in understanding why some interest groups are more influential than others, and why some groups are more prominent within party coalitions than others. Some have the attention of members of their party to a greater extent than others. If you were to ask people to think of a prominent, powerful group in American politics, the NRA would probably be one of the first few that come to people’s minds.  

Often times, when we think about interest groups in political science, we think about the financial resources that groups bring to bear in politics. What I’m trying to argue here is about what are called “ideational resources”—the cultivation of a group identity and a group ideology.

Those ideational resources help the NRA influence politics via mass channels of influence, rather than private channels of influence. When we think of the use of financial resources, we think of the influence in politics in sort of behind-the-scenes ways, whether it’s a sort of quid pro quo type stuff with legislators, or whether it’s trying to get access to legislators to try and persuade them. In the NRA’s case, it’s the impact it has had on its members and supporters that enable it to have such clout in politics.

 

You created a digital archive of American Rifleman, an NRA publication, that spans nearly 80 years. How did you build that archive?

I collected the Rifleman and I also collected newspaper letters to the editor. The process for newspaper letters to the editor was a lot easier. I basically used ProQuest and came up with a search term that I thought maximized finding letters about gun control, minimized false positives.

With the Rifleman, it was a little bit harder. There isn’t much of the magazine digitized. I talked to the interlibrary loans office at Northwestern, and they did an awesome job of getting me probably 55 or 60 of the 79 years of magazines I looked at. They got them sent to Northwestern. I used scanners to take high-quality pictures of the magazines’ contents. Some of them were on microfilm, so I had to use a microfilm scanner to take pictures. It’s a nearly automated process, but basically requires somebody to click a button every thirty or so seconds. I spent a solid chunk of the summer of 2016 in the microfilm room in the basement of the library, watching the Olympics and clicking a button.

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The microfilm and the hard copies brought to Northwestern got me about 55 or 60 years of Rifleman magazines. But then there was a missing chunk. I went to NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, which is also the home of the NRA National Firearms Museum. They have a reading room. I reached out to someone in the office of the reading room and asked if I could come by and take some images of some of the Rifleman issues, so I’d have a complete collection. I spent about a week there taking images of their magazine with a handheld scanner.

The next step in this process was pulling out the editorials for each issue and then running them through optical character recognition software, which takes images and turns them into text files. I did the same thing with the letters to the editor. Then I compiled all those documents as text files into a spreadsheet, which I could then use to do statistical analyses on the text.

I haven’t received any feedback from the NRA, or really even from any gun rights supporters, so I can’t say what they think of what I produced. But I’m curious whether they would still be as inviting as they were. I didn’t lie about anything. I don’t think my project is inherently anti-gun.

 

What do you hope the general public might take from your work?

I don’t have a political agenda on the gun control issue. I do sometimes think that the general public has an inaccurate view of what it is that makes the NRA powerful.

For people who support gun control, which is a majority of Americans, I think trying to claim that the inability to pass stricter gun control laws is the result of the NRA buying politicians isn’t accurate. If you think it’s just a matter of buying off politicians, then you might think, “What point is there for me to get involved in this issue? I can’t buy off politicians, so what difference can I make?” But if you realize that a big part of the story is that NRA supporters and gun owners are actually really active, engaged, involved, dedicated political citizens, and that that’s a key reason behind a lack of stronger gun control laws, then your feelings of efficacy and your willingness to take action on this issue would, I hope, be higher.

There are two things that matter about the language of gun rights supporters. The first is that it demonstrates evidence of them holding a collective identity related to their ownership of guns. Regardless of whether it was to be connected to the NRA, that could be a powerful thing for gun owners.

The fact that it does seem to be systematically related to the NRA’s actions—which is to say the NRA does seem to be the driver of this identity, and does seem to be effective at appealing to it to advance its interests—it’s also important because it helps us to understand why it is that the NRA seems to be so effective. Gun control advocates could potentially learn from that model. I don’t know that they can create a distinct identity that is tied to support for gun control. But I think they can definitely discuss gun control in ways that are designed to appeal to important identities that people hold. It’s the sort of thing that the Million Mom March did, the sort of thing that Moms Demand Action is doing.

 

If reporters cover what gun rights supporters say—especially really active and intense and loud and visible gun rights supporters—and what they say is driven by what the NRA says, then I do think it would end up making it into reporting on this issue.

 

Tell me about the media response to your work.

I first put myself out there by writing for a Washington Post blog, the Monkey Cage, after Las Vegas, actually. And then most of the attention started after Las Vegas. But it very much comes in response to mass shootings.

When I first started my project, I thought the claim that it’s really the political behavior of gun owners that might matter more than the NRA’s money, I thought that was going to be super provocative, and that a lot of people would really resent it. That hasn’t so much been the case since I’ve been out there and spoken with members of the media. They all seem kind of onboard with that claim. What they’re more interested in knowing is how the NRA has achieved that. Why are gun owners the way they are, in terms of political engagement, and what has the NRA done to spur it? Rather than being more interested in debating whether it’s money or behavior that matters.

I’ve been impressed with the nuance in a lot of journalists’ work. There seems to be greater awareness, greater attention paid to the fact that the political engagement of gun owners is an important determinant of the lack of gun control laws in the US. I think journalists are much more attuned to that than they seemed to be even a couple years ago.

 

I’m curious about whether some reporters might unintentionally deploy some of NRA’s identity-focused language. Is that something you’ve encountered?

I haven’t studied that systematically. But think about it this way: If reporters cover what gun rights supporters say—especially really active and intense and loud and visible gun rights supporters—and what they say is driven by what the NRA says, then I do think it would end up making it into reporting on this issue. Which is to say that one way the NRA might influence the gun debate is by shaping media coverage of it indirectly by influencing what reporters say about the debate.

Even when folks disagree with what they say, we often end up getting into sort of narrow debates about whether a particular policy proposal of theirs is good or bad. It doesn’t seem incredibly likely to me that we’re going to have armed teachers. But we spent a lot of time debating armed teachers. And we could’ve spent that time debating something like stricter gun laws that would probably have greater effects on gun violence than the armed teachers issue would. Which is to say, even if the NRA loses the “armed teachers” debate, the greater the extent to which the debate is about something like that, the more likely they are to sort of maintain the status quo.

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Have you noticed any trends in language from the NRA since #NeverAgain, the national school walkout, and other public responses to gun violence since the Parkland shooting?

I think the response [from the NRA] has fit with what I found in my project in the sense that it’s been kind of personal. I think it’s been more focused on framing movement towards gun control as the product of the actions of ‘bad people who are not part of our group that would harm us.’ Which is to say, I think the response has been kind of identity based, rather than specifically focused on policy. I’ve got lots of emails in the past few weeks asking for money while saying Gun rights are under attack, and We’re under attack.

 

Do you have plans to further develop your digital archive? To make it publicly available?

I’m not sure at what point it will be strategically wise for me to throw everything online. But once I do reach that point, I’d be more than happy to.

I’m not the first scholar to study the American Rifleman. But I do think I have, perhaps, the only text database of its editorials, and maybe the most comprehensive digital database of the magazine at large. And when I have my work out there, I’d be really happy to share it.

The other thing is, I do hope that other folks might consider using letters to the editor as data sources, even if they’re not about gun control specifically. I think it’s sort of a unique way to measure and identify public sentiment. If you’re writing a letter on a subject, then you sort of know you care about it.

One of the things that’s hard about public opinion polls is it’s tough to measure the intensity behind preferences, and the extent to which they seem to drive actual political involvement. If we see that more people write letters to the editor in opposition to gun control than in support of it, then that tells us something about public sentiment on that issue. Even if a majority of people support gun control, [writing letters to the editor] seems to be more important to those who oppose it.

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Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR, where he directs the United States Project. His writing has appeared at Literary Hub, The Believer Logger, Montana Public Radio, and The Morning News, where he wrote the “Press Pause” column. His previous work with CJR colleagues was shortlisted for the 2012 Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism. He spent six years as a reporter and editor at C-VILLE Weekly.