Beyond “Cold Dead Hands” and “Clenched Fists”

NRA propaganda hearkens back to an imagined past of white picket fences and financial security. In doing so, it whitewashes the history of guns in American life.

National Rifle Association members attend the 146th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 29, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott Olson / Getty

The National Rifle Association often describes its commitment to the Second Amendment as a physical attachment. A couple of decades ago, you had to pry the guns out of Charlton Heston’s “cold, dead hands.” Today, Dana Loesch claims that only the “clenched fist” can preserve our freedom. As she narrates in her 2017 appearance in the National Rifle Association’s “Freedom’s Safest Place” video series:

They use their media to assassinate real news, and they use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movies and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again … all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia, to smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, and bully and terrorize the law-abiding.… The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

Such astringent rhetoric suggests something profound about the kind of politics in which the NRA engages: namely, the organization doesn’t just lobby for gun laws; it also shapes the very meaning of American gun culture.

Since 1975, when the National Rifle Association formally entered political lobbying with the founding of its Institution for Legislative Action, the organization has never shied away from electrifyingly fearsome rhetoric. It has used racially loaded images of common street criminals and rioters to demonstrate the necessity of gun rights, and it has used Hollywood elites, Islamic extremists, and violent leftist mobs to insist on the precarity of those same rights.

The NRA’s propaganda makes it all too easy to reduce the organization and its members to classic fearmongers. And no doubt, this aspect is crucial to understanding the organization. But alongside its confrontational rhetoric is a more proactive moral vision, one that articulates a vision of the “real” America — one defined not by what the NRA stands against but rather what it stands for.

In this vision, gun owners lay claim to a particular vision of the social order. Instead of a community beset by “thugs,” “elitists,” and “Islamic extremists,” this image of America promises a return to a bygone era of good neighbors and white picket fences. This nostalgic idea plays an equally central role in the organization’s moral project as its better-known, more aggressive, and oppositional rhetoric.

“I Am the NRA”

In the 1980s, the NRA realized it had an image problem. Harlon Carter, a veteran of the organization who led a group of “hard-liners,” had just taken over the organization at the 1977 annual NRA convention in Cincinnati. The NRA had long defined itself as a service organization dedicated to training military, police, and civilians and promoting hunting and shooting sports, but the NRA’s membership and leadership began to factionalize as gun policy became an increasingly contentious issue in the 1960s. To the chagrin of the so-called sportsmen’s faction, Carter’s “Revolt at Cincinnati” steered the NRA into the “no-compromise” lobbying bulwark that would come to define the group’s rhetoric and policy agenda today.

In the years that followed, the NRA would test the limits of its public appeal by adopting increasingly hard-line stances. It opposed handgun bans; it organized campaigns to defeat handgun registration; it argued against mandatory minimum sentencing for unlicensed gun carry; and — perhaps most audaciously — it rallied against proposed laws outlawing so-called cop-killer bullets.

Enter the “I’m the NRA” series, a set of “controversial” advertisements (as news coverage of the time described them) placed in outlets like People, Better Homes & Gardens, Esquire, Time, Newsweek, and Boy’s Life starting in the early 1980s. The first four ads in the series featured an astronaut, a wife and mother, a high-school competitive shooter, and an eight-year-old BB-gun enthusiast — all NRA members. Bryan Hardin, the child in the last advertisement, explained in his full-color, page-length advertisement that “my Dad’s a member of the NRA and so am I because he says they need kids like me to grow up and keep shooting a safe sport.” Alongside the picture of a blonde boy holding his gun with a full smile, the NRA reminds the reader that the organization “teaches thousands of young people safe handling and basic marksmanship skills.”

Following on the heels of a “Meet the Gun Lobby” advertisement, this campaign attempted to “correct” what public-affairs director John Aquilino called at the time “the distorted view of who NRA members are.” For an organization defined by what it opposes (gun control), these ads were designed to present a more substantive vision: forging a moral code for American gun enthusiasts and doubling down on what it meant to own a gun and belong to the NRA.

The campaign would later go on to include supporters from all walks of life — elected officials, an NBA star, actors, police officers — to publicize the organization’s commitment to gun safety, hunting, and traditional, wholesome values. Never mind that in the 1980s, public law enforcement was split on a variety of gun policies, African Americans were dying by gun violence in record numbers, and polls showed that Americans favored a variety of gun-control measures; as the advertisement featuring Tom Selleck noted, “Shooting teaches young people good things. Because all good rules for shooting are good rules for life.”

The “Good Guys”

In the decades since that campaign, the NRA’s oppositional politics have become familiar to the point of cliche. But its moral politics have, perhaps paradoxically, become simultaneously more sophisticated and less acknowledged in the broader gun debate. For the progeny of the “I’m the NRA” campaign, look no further than the “Good Guys” series, a collection of seventeen videos that never quite had the viral appeal as the “Clenched Fist” video and its ilk.

As the Daily Beast noted with chagrin, the campaign launched the same August day in 2014 that a nine-year-old girl killed her gun instructor with an Uzi. That’s not too ironic, though, because these videos don’t adopt a hard-line defense of guns and gun rights — at least not directly. Instead, each video starts with a nagging question and answers it with a stylized take on the contemporary United States, an answer that often highlights socioeconomic decline, cultural isolation, and moral abandonment:

Do you still believe in the golden rule? Then you must feel surrounded by a world that doesn’t seem to care about it all.… Even in your own town and neighborhood, you’ve seen people turn their back on each other, close their hearts, and mute their conscience.

Do you still believe in Mom and Dad? Because you are surrounded by a world where, for too many, being a parent no longer means being there.

Do you still believe that hard work is its own reward? Because we live in a society that values leisure above everything.

Do you still believe in your neighbors? Are you surrounded by a world where doors stay locked and windows shuttered? Where streets that once rang with bike bells and shouts have gone empty and silent?

The videos paint a picture of a lost Mayberry: gone are the days of family stability, happy childhoods, doing unto others, and trusting your neighbors. The narrative is deliberately color blind, implicitly evoking the white picket fences of white, middle-class American suburbia; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t mention the forces of racism that kept Mayberry America outside the reach of many people of color. Instead, amid the decline of this nostalgic vision of America, viewers are told that they are (to borrow the title of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s latest book) “strangers in their own land.”

But they are also told that, if they choose to be, they can become moral agents and (in Trumpian parlance) Make America Great Again. Though each question appears open ended, there is a clear right answer: the good guys, these videos assert, do believe in the golden rule, do believe in family values, do believe in the value of hard work, do believe in their neighbors, and most importantly, do join the NRA:

How do you know who the good guys are? Consider this: which sticker on your new neighbor’s truck says the most about him? Inspires the most confidence and trust? A sports logo? A radio station? Or these three letters [NRA]? Few symbols speak so clearly and proudly about what you stand for — and who you are. A good guy. Someone who believes in community and country, who you can trust to act when others would not.

The NRA, here, is not just the premier organization for freedom; according to Colion Noir, the sole African-American spokesperson of the series, it’s how you personally signal to an otherwise apathetic world that you are a “good guy.” And thanks to the spread of gun carry as an everyday practice, Americans need not to rely on NRA stickers to show their moral standing. They can also wear their sidearms.

Gun Training as Moral Training

I heard the “good guy” narrative from the gun carriers I interviewed in Michigan just after the 2008 Great Recession, and I uncovered it in my own observations of gun training for my book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. Over a million Americans undergo some kind of NRA training, directed by some 125,000 NRA-certified instructors. The demand for these classes stems in part from concealed-carry licensing requirements: in most states, training is required before obtaining a license.

These courses are often run by NRA-certified instructors with NRA course materials. Usually adapting the “Personal Protection In the Home” curriculum to concealed carry, the courses I observed in Michigan included a few hours on the range, the basics of firearms safety, and the legal parameters of firearms carry and self-defense.

And they also often included what perhaps is best described as moral training. Much like the “Good Guys” series, classes often began with a question like, “Are you prepared to take a life in order to save your life or the life of someone else?” This hints at the course materials’ basic message: shooting another person in self-defense can be a (morally, religiously, or socially) repugnant experience; taking a class in armed self-defense does not imply that one is capable of using lethal force; therefore, apprehending the boundaries of one’s capacity to use a gun in self-defense requires ethical contemplation — usually in the form of imagined scenarios. To this end, instructors told me that they tried to challenge — rather than tell — students how to find their own personal boundaries.

But, like the video series, this open-ended question has a right answer, or at least a normative undertone: whether one is capable of using lethal force in particular scenarios is closely associated with the extent to which one values one’s own life and the lives of others.

And, whether one is capable of using lethal force is not just about one’s individual right to self-defense. Consider this passage, which is one of the most direct statements given to students about the morality of lethal force. The NRA’s handbook explains that if you are involved in a self-defense incident, remember:

You are a good person […]
You are a moral person
Your attacker was the one who chose a lifestyle and sequence of events that led to this encounter
You were morally justified in protecting yourself and your family
You have quite possibly saved the lives of others by stopping this predator from harming future innocent victims.

This passage does something far more than advocate self-defense. First and foremost, it presents the act of using lethal force as the mark of a good, moral person. Second, it creates a clear moral boundary between the “attacker” — who chose a particular lifestyle — and “morally justified” victim. In other words, it presents the question of gun use in the individualized, moralized, and color-blind language of “good guys” and “bad guys.” And third, it not only distinguishes the “bad guys” from the “good,” but it also removes the “bad guy” from the community all together: the “good guy” not only protected himself — the majority of gun carriers are men — but also protected his family and a limitless number of potential, additional victims.

As I showed in my book, this color-blind call to duty appeals particularly to men who grieve the loss of the “Mayberry America” that once provided them not just with job security but also a reliable map for being a good man, a good father, and a good community member.

But this excerpt also shows how seamlessly the messaging about “Good Guys” intimates a much more oppositional politics, one that advocates guns as tools — whether symbolic or practical — to take back one’s community from the imagined specter of thugs, elitists, terrorists, and extremists.

Whose Freedom?

This brings us back to the NRA’s more oppositional rhetoric, featured in campaigns like the “Freedom’s Safest Place” series. This is the series that boasts that “the farmers, the cowboys, the loggers, … the truck drivers, … the mountain men who live off the land [and] the brave cops who fight the good fight in the urban war zones” define America but that the South Side of Chicago is “less than America.” It maintains that Americans get to protect themselves with guns while the “French, German or Belgian … [are] doomed to defend their families with rolling pins and broom handles.” And it asserts that, “when evil knocks on our door, Americans have a power no other people on the planet share: the full-throated right to defend our families and ourselves with our Second Amendment.”

Much more diverse than the “Good Guy” series, “Freedom’s Safest Place” features African Americans from crime-ridden neighborhoods, rural whites who stand up to Islamic extremists, and immigrants from Venezuela and Greece who chastise Americans for not appreciating the freedoms they enjoy. The NRA seems to allow itself to harp on xenophobic images of criminals, thugs, and extremists, as long as it also features people of color and immigrants who embrace guns as a metaphorical ticket into American society — and American freedom. Neither subtle nor nuanced, the NRA mobilizes tropes of class, race, gender, or nation into a defense of American exceptionalism in firearms.

This is the familiar doom-and-gloom, fear-and-threat NRA. But these messages alone cannot account for the persuasiveness of the organization’s overall political message. Political scientists Alexandra Filindra and Noah Kaplan found that depictions of threat do not galvanize people toward gun rights; rather, they enhance support for gun control. Only when these threats are combined with “identity work” is support for gun rights activated.

In their published work, Filindra and Kaplan find a clear correlation between opposition to gun control and white resentment: the language of freedom, individualism, and self-reliance, Filindra told the Washington Post, “creates this duality between a generic deserving group — could be homeowners, students, law-abiding citizens — versus the ‘special rights’ that government is giving to a ‘less deserving’ group.” The cultural work the NRA does to popularize particular notions of “good guys” is not just window dressing; it’s a crucial way of priming people for the organization’s broader political project.

This cultural work, of course, shapes the terms of the broader gun debate itself: the NRA’s status as gun-culture behemoth means that too often discussions about gun culture are reduced to mind-numbingly simplistic questions: Is a good guy with a gun really the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun? If guns are outlawed, will only outlaws have guns? Did the founding fathers really love their guns as much as contemporary Americans do?

But even more, the NRA’s stranglehold on defining the contours of American gun culture whitewashes the real history of gun ownership and use in the United States. While the NRA emphasizes carrying a gun as key to becoming a “good guy” and ensuring that the United States remains “freedom’s safest place,” neither the white picket fence nor a threatened American exceptionalism captures the breadth and depth of American gun culture.

Guns saturate American history. As a growing body of work by historians, legal scholars, and movement participants like Charles Cobb, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Nicholas Johnson, Caroline Light, and others reveal, guns have served as tools of racial, class, and gender domination and as a means to aggressively assert a particular social order, but they have also been critical resources for collective resistance and individual survival.

The history of American gun ownership includes white posses that helped carry out the genocide of Native Americans, colonialists who used guns to overthrow the British, slave patrols that brutalized runaway slaves before returning them to their owners, black freedmen who carried guns as part of negro militias to secure the South and declare their citizenship, white-supremacist groups that used guns, among many other means, to terrorize, maim, and kill African Americans and ruthlessly enforce Jim Crow, civil rights groups who turned to guns for protection, and black power advocates who embraced the Second Amendment as a means of self-determination.

These legacies still animate the contemporary gun context on the Right and Left, through such right-wing groups as the nativist Arizona Border Recon and the white-supremacist Vanguard America, on the one hand, and left-wing groups like the militant self-defense group Huey Newton Gun Club and the anti-fascist John Brown Gun Club, on the other.

You won’t hear the real — that is, complete — story of American guns in the NRA’s “Good Guys” or “Freedom’s Safest Place” series. And this whitewashing of both the contemporary and historical contours of American gun culture is, perhaps, the most hidden casualty of the NRA’s ongoing culture war.