The NRA is nominally a gun rights organization, but in recent years it’s swerved toward embracing a hardline version of conservatism, with all the racial ugliness that that entails. The NRA famously refused to speak out about the 2017 death of Philando Castile, a black gun owner who was shot to death by police (on Twitter, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch defended the police). On NRA TV, hosts have warned that Black Lives Matter is racist and violent and want to kill white people and frequently discuss racist tropes like black on black crime. The NRA TV host Chuck Holton has written that “there is plenty of proof that black culture is inherently more violent than other cultures.”
A look at polling data of NRA members suggests that comments like these from NRA personalities are more than just coincidence. Social scientists have become increasingly interested in the ways that attitudes about race influence attitudes about guns, and my analysis suggests that racial animus is strongly associated with joining the NRA.
The link between racial resentment and attitudes about gun ownership and gun control is well established in the academic literature: Whites who agree with statements like “if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites” are more likely to own guns. However, there has been less study of whether membership in the National Rifle Association is connected to such racial attitudes. Using data from the Voter Study Group survey, I found strong evidence of a relationship. The Voter Study Group survey includes a baseline survey that was conducted in 2011 with 8,000 respondents, which included a question about which organizations the respondent was a member of. Among the possible organizations was the NRA, an option which 8 percent of respondents selected.
So how do we look at the racial attitudes of those NRA members? To begin, I examined some simple demographic and partisan characteristics of NRA members found in the Voter Study Group survey. I find that whites are somewhat more likely to be in the NRA, with 78 percent of those reported NRA membership being white, compared with 71 percent of non-NRA members. NRA members are also more likely to be Republican, with 70 percent identifying as Republican compared to 35 percent of non-NRA members. Eighty-one percent of NRA members reported voting for Mitt Romney, compared to 41 percent of non-NRA members. And while the NRA has attempted diversity pushes and tried to put forward black pro-gun commentators at times (as the group did when it aired an interview with rapper Killer Mike), the VSG data indicate that fewer than 2 percent of individuals who identified as NRA members were black.
To begin exploring whether racial animus is associated with NRA membership, I use a battery of questions scholars refer to as racial resentment, or symbolic racism, which I combine into a scale. The scale consists of the following four questions:
- Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without any special favors.
- It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites.
- Over the past few years, black people have gotten less than they deserve.
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for black people to work their way out of the lower class.
The results are unambiguous. Holding other variables equal (race, ideology, age, gender, education, ideology, and party identification) the predicted probability of an individual at the low end of the resentment scale identifying as a member of the NRA is 4 percent, compared to a 17 percent predicted probability for an individual at the highest end of the resentment scale. Here's what that looks like:
Some scholars have objected to the idea that racial resentment is an accurate measure of racial animus, instead claiming it measures conservatism. Of course it does, since racial attitudes and ideology are deeply intertwined and the symbolic racism measures were explicitly designed in reaction to Reagan’s masterful combination of white racial animus and fiscal conservatism. However, even examining only Republicans, I find that relationship between resentment and NRA membership meets traditional thresholds of statistical significance.
To further test the relationship, I examined another measure frequently used in the social science literature, the white-black feeling thermometer gap. The Voter Study Group survey asks respondents where they place their feelings for white people on a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being coldest and 100 being the warmest. It asks the same question about feelings for black people. By subtracting an individual's score for black people from white people, we can get an estimate of their racial animus towards African Americans. It would be difficult to argue that such animus was related to deeply held ideological beliefs about meritocracy in society and rugged individualism. NRA members, on average, have 19 points warmer feelings towards white people, compared with 8 points warmer among people who are not in the NRA.
Given the NRA’s increasing extremism and heated rhetoric, these results are not particularly surprising. But they do show that the ugly racial stereotypes often peddled by the NRA’s shows and spokespeople are not just a product of an extremist leadership. When the NRA says something shocking and seemingly racist, it may be because it knows what its membership wants to hear.
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