“The NRA is a terrorist organization,” tweeted actor Michael Ian Black shortly after the Las Vegas massacre. “There’s no other way to say it,” he added. Really—no other way? Well, I can imagine a few different ways, but let’s not try to think too hard about this. Black bases his astonishing claim on the Free Dictionary’s definition of the term “terrorism,” which is: “A political movement that uses terror as a weapon to achieve its goals.” Gosh, I’m not quite sure how the NRA “uses terror as a weapon,” though I think it might have something to do with the fact that—stick with me here—the organization advocates for political policies that Michael Ian Black does not like very much.
One is obliged to point out the obvious: the NRA’s political advocacy is only necessary because there are a great many people like Michael Ian Black who would dearly love to see American gun rights greatly attenuated. But that’s kind of the point: if you can label your political opposition as “terrorists” not because they’re actually terrorists but simply because you disagree with them, then you will have effected a neat double whammy, casting yourself as a sort of domestic freedom fighter while delegitimizing your opponents beyond reasonable political debate.
I guess the trend is spreading: yesterday Keith Olbermann summoned the last little scraps of his political relevance and went on his website show to call the NRA a “terrorist organization.” All of this is perfectly hysterical, and predictably so, but it is also instructive on a deeper level. Low-information pundits like Michael Ian Black and Keith Olbermann do not really believe, in their heart of hearts, that the National Rifle Association is a “terrorist organization;” the reason they call it that is because they are shameless demagogues with no moral compunctions. All that talk you hear about the NRA having politicians in its pocket is similarly misguided: the NRA is, in the grand scheme of grand Washington politics, something of a bit player, an advocacy group that spends comparatively little on national politicians. Kyle Griffin pointed out on Monday that the NRA has donated about three and a half million bucks to the Congressional campaigns of current Republican congressmen…over the last two decades or so. That works out to around $180,000 per year. By contrast, Planned Parenthood spent nearly $700,000 on federal candidates last year alone. Terrorism!
All of this talk about “the NRA” is something of a smokescreen. In the end, “the NRA” is metonymical: anti-gun progressives don’t hate the organization, they hate American gun culture—a culture without which, of course, the NRA would simply be an irrelevant and esoteric fringe group advocating a cause few people cared about. Why is “the NRA” considered so powerful, after all? It is solely because of Americans who like guns—the millions of voting Americans who are members of the NRA, and the millions more who aren’t but who feel passionate enough about gun rights to vote against those who would circumscribe those rights. When Michael Ian Black calls the NRA a “terrorist organization,” he is engaging in a fit of naked political cowardice: what he means is that you are the terrorist for voting in favor of gun rights, though he is not quite brave enough to say it outright.
The kind of gun control for which people like Michael Ian Black and Keith Olbermann advocate—Olbermann, for one, resurrected the “Second Amendment is about militias” argument, tacitly endorsing the end of individual gun rights in America—is a non-starter in American politics. Americans, by and large, like their guns, and they like their gun rights. It would and will be exceedingly difficult to convince the American body politic to surrender its firearms. For rabid anti-gun partisans, this must be deeply, almost insanely frustrating. And so the impulse to call us “terrorists” is an understandable one—though it is doubtful it will effect any real change, for obvious reasons.