PBS Frontline Episode “NRA Under Fire” and Common Narratives of the NRA

I don’t really want to keep talking about the National Rifle Association (NRA). I really don’t. As noted previously, when I sent a proposal for a book on Gun Culture 2.0 to Oxford University Press a couple of years ago, one of the peer reviewers took me to task for not talking about the NRA enough. In fact, as a correction to those who want to reduce guns and gun culture to the NRA, I am intentionally trying to write my book without putting the NRA in the center of the action.

Which is not to say the NRA is unimportant, but the common narrative of the NRA is too simplistic in a number of ways. In particular, it downplays too much both the NRA’s early political activity and its current activities beyond politics.

I saw this once again in a recent  episode of the long-running PBS series Frontline on the National Rifle Association called “NRA Under Fire.”

I am always interested when I watch shows like this to see what expert academic commentators they will bring in to put the issue in broader perspective. I found it curious that this entire 54 minute episode included no academic commentators. Instead, they relied heavily on journalists to tell the story. This is not the worst thing in the world. For example, journalist Paul Barrett, who has written an excellent book on guns in America, appears in the episode.

The problem comes when the journalists simply repeat (and thereby reinforce) broader narratives that may or may not be empirically valid. One example that really stood out to me as problematic was a comment by New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg on the grades the NRA gives to legislators (see embedded YouTube video, or transcript below).


It also grades members of both parties, punishing them if they break with the NRA on guns.


And so if you’ve got an “F” rating from the NRA and you are trying to get elected—good luck with that.  (From transcript here).

I heard Stolberg saying this and couldn’t help but pause the TV to look at the legislators shown with “F” grades from the NRA. Good luck getting elected with your “F” rating from the NRA 9-times elected Senator Ted Kennedy. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Senator and Vice President Joe Biden. Senator Diane Feinstein. And is that a young Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on the top right?

Photo of my TV displaying PBS Frontline episode “NRA Under Fire,” April 2020.

This is not to deny that the NRA is influential, but its power is highly conditional. This is not my area of scholarship, but some quick Google Scholar searches for NRA political influence yields the following. NRA endorsements do not effect gubernatorial elections in 1994. Examining 1994 and 1996 congressional elections reveals NRA endorsements “can have a statistically discernible effect on election outcomes, but not in all elections and for all candidates.” Beyond elections, the NRA does better in affecting state firearms legislation when it “plants in fertile soil.” As Trent Steidley has observed, “the NRA does influence CCW laws, but its effect is mediated by public opinion, political ideologies, competitive elections, and political opportunities.”

In contrast to these measured evaluations, the language used in this episode to describe the NRA is unbelievable: “behemoth,” “feared,” “unrivaled power.” These are terms better reserved for the real 800-pound gorillas in Washington like Big Pharma, the insurance and telecom industries, and the oil and gas lobby.

This lionization of the NRA reminds me very much of my earlier days as a sociologist of religion. The “rediscovery of the religious factor in politics” by social scientists was stimulated in part by the belief that Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan, a belief they were more than happy to perpetuate. But later analyses came to show that the Moral Majority was not instrumental, contrary to the popular narrative. Might the alleged “unrivaled power” of the NRA be the same?

6 thoughts on “PBS Frontline Episode “NRA Under Fire” and Common Narratives of the NRA

  1. i only started to look objectively at gun control controversies in 2017. Before that, I was a thoroughly convinced anti-gunner. Through conversations with firearms dealers, trainers, policy advocates, etc., I quickly learned that most of my assumptions about the NRA and about the causes of and solutions to gun violence in the United States were flat wrong. Unfortunately, I think many journalists never question their assumptions but continue writing based on their standard narratives. Now, I see astonishing examples of this all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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