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Problems and opportunities for the NRA

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted May 6, 2002

For the last sixteen months, support for gun rights has been growing in non-traditional constituencies. This poses interesting problems for the gun rights movement, particularly the National Rifle Association.

The changes began with the presidential election of 2000 and were accelerated by the events of 9-11. There are now almost daily media reports of greater activity at shooting ranges, gun shops and police departments where residents of some states must apply for gun permits.

Many of these newly active gun owners do not fit the rural, right wing, male stereotype of the typical gun rights supporter. Some are not comfortable in what they perceive as the macho environment of shooting ranges and some have a negative perception of the NRA. This has prompted the formation of independent gun rights groups.

One of these non-traditional groups is the Second Amendment Sisters, which advocates armed self-defense for women. They organize shooting events for women and their representatives now appear frequently in the media.

College students have founded several new gun clubs at schools normally considered liberal and anti-gun. My contacts with some of these students indicate that they do not follow any particular political ideology. Some are distinctly liberal and wary of the NRA, no doubt the result of many years of NRA-bashing by the media.

The group that creates the biggest problem for the NRA is called "Pink Pistols." This organization supports the firearms rights of sexual minorities and believes that: "Armed gays don't get bashed." It is growing rapidly, with chapters in 29 cities.

Members of Pink Pistols have appeared before state legislative committees to testify against anti-gun bills and reports indicate that their opinions carry considerable weight with legislators who are not used to hearing pro-gun sentiments from this segment of society.

Pink Pistols has drawn an amazing amount of media coverage for such a new organization. Local newspaper and radio reporters are fascinated with the concept of armed gays and usually give their stories a positive slant. They tend to downplay the fact that Pink Pistols welcomes not just gays, but anyone who self-identifies as a sexual minority and those who simply support sexual freedom.

The leaders of the NRA are well aware of the growth of Pink Pistols and it presents them with something of a dilemma. On one hand, they are happy to see a traditionally anti-gun segment of the population swinging over to the pro-gun side. However, if they embrace this new group, they risk alienating some of their current members who actually do fit the right-wing stereotype.

It is worth noting that some gun owners have abandoned the relatively moderate NRA and have moved on to more radical pro-gun organizations. Perhaps these are the same people who would be alienated by the inclusion of sexual minorities in the gun rights community. If so, the NRA has little to lose by supporting Pink Pistols.

Although this problem is interesting, a look at the big picture shows consequences far beyond these two small demographic groups. Just a few decades ago, supporters of the Second Amendment included such Democratic stalwarts as John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Political maneuvering since their time has artificially placed the burden of defending firearms rights on conservative and Republican shoulders. The non-traditional pro-gun groups have the potential to end this unnatural situation and help form a broad societal consensus in favor of gun rights.

An important tactical question is how this new development will impact the future growth of the NRA. The main factor limiting NRA membership is the negative image it has with many liberal-left and even centrist citizens. Reaching out to non-traditional groups is a powerful way to improve that image.

A good example occurred when a co-worker of mine heard a public radio news reporter describe how several NRA-certified instructors were aiding the local Pink Pistols chapter. He was pleasantly surprised and commented, "If this keeps up, I'll have to change my opinion of the NRA."

Rejecting the new groups would obviously reinforce the negative stereotype of the NRA. But reaching out too fast or providing too much assistance runs the risk of harming these organizations by making them appear as pawns. Much of their value lies in the fact that they are independent voices outside the much-maligned "gun lobby."

A delicate balance is required and seems to be developing. Publicly, the NRA is ignoring Pink Pistols. Privately, they are friendly and cordial. Local NRA clubs and instructors are free to assist Pink Pistols groups and many are doing so. One Pink Pistols chapter even shoots regularly at the NRA headquarters range in Fairfax, Virginia.

Success always creates new problems and offers opportunities for creative solutions. That is certainly proving true for the gun rights community.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws. He can be reached at rkba2000@yahoo.com.

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