With its roots in the second half of the 1970s, and scoring one win after another beginning with the Reagan era, the gun nut movement does not fit with the timeline of socially and culturally conservative values -- that would be the Midcentury, whether under FDR or Eisenhower -- but rather with the timeline of libertarianism, whether under Reagan or Clinton.
The NRA did not begin its hardline lobbying efforts until the mid-'70s, which also saw the birth of the Gun Owners of America, an even more hardline group. For both organizations, the main goal is deregulation of gun laws, placing it squarely within the broader laissez-faire trend of the past 40 years.
Such groups are kindred spirits with other deregulatory organizations that represent business interests (here, firearms manufacturers), like the Chamber of Commerce, who have been mainstays of the Reaganite era that we are still in, and that have actually scored big under the regime. They are no more of an "activist" group than the CoC, and we gain nothing from emulating their model if we are not also a deregulatory lobby group.
Social-cultural conservatives have seen jack squat in results from Reagan's two terms, Bush Sr., two terms of Bush Jr., and now Trump. Take any top issue for the Moral Majority types that libertarians don't care about -- pornography, homosexuality, divorce and broken homes, drugs and alcohol, gambling, religion in public places -- and all they've received is lip service.
And it's not for lack of electoral commitment to the GOP -- they just don't fit in with the laissez-faire impulse behind the Reaganite revolution. In fact, conservative morality is defined by placing all sorts of regulations on individual and collective behavior in order to obtain a more harmonious state of being at a collective level, such as the community (a difference explored in this post).
The gun groups won't even dignify the candidates of conservatives with an endorsement. Indeed, the more hardline the gun group, the more libertarian they prefer their Republican candidates to be -- in the 2008 primaries, the GOA endorsed Ron Paul, not the social-cultural conservative Mike Huckabee.
To explore what moral themes the gun nut movement resonates with, we'll rely on Jonathan Haidt's model of five: harm prevention / provision of care, fairness / justice, deference to authority, in-group loyalty, and purity / taboo.
Liberals tend to resonate primarily with the themes of harm and fairness, and less so with the other three. Conservatives resonate with all of them, and are most distinct from liberals in resonating with the theme of purity / taboo. Libertarians, as it turns out, are even more liberal than liberals in their moral themes. It is not primarily about harm and fairness, but entirely about these two themes. Liberals are at least somewhat in agreement that certain things are immoral, despite being legal and practiced by consenting adults, like disgusting forms of pornography or buying and selling human organs on a market.
So what are the gun nuts' main concerns?
First, bearing arms in order to practice self-defense from harm and destruction, whether of one's body or property. Preventing the harm of others also enters into the mindset, although theirs is mostly an individual-level focus -- showing down mano-a-mano with a bad guy who would do the gun-owner harm in a situation where the gun-owner is alone, or at least with no companions to have his back.
And second, doing so in order to re-balance the cosmic scales of justice, which have been thrown outta-whack by the bad guy. The gun nuts don't imagine drawing their weapon on someone who doesn't deserve it, but on someone who has already violated the law. They are also quick to emphasize that guns are the great equalizers, leveling the playing field between a skinny introvert like Bernie Goetz and a pack of beasts who try to prey on him on the subway.
This shows that their concerns are urban and suburban forms of violent crime, not the kind that rural residents face where there literally is no government nearby to protect them.
There's no relation to the theme of preserving purity from corruption, or upholding taboos, which makes it feel not distinctly conservative.
They do try to relate it to the sacred by linking it to the Second Amendment, and viewing the Constitution as a sacred text. But carrying and wielding a firearm is not done in service of preserving something sacred from being defiled -- as though they drew their weapon to stop a bad guy who was defecating on a copy of the Constitution or burning the American flag (the secular sacred), let alone to defend something that is religiously sacred like the Christian cross.
It's conceivable that the gun nuts could mobilize to defend Us against Them (in-group loyalty), but they do not behave that way, and do not have that in mind. Look at the hordes of immigrants pouring in -- no call to arms from the NRA, whether to collectively defend against invaders generally or, say, radical Muslims specifically.
At best, the Minutemen might organize to defend the border against illegal immigrants, but again that only has to do with fairness and justice -- mass immigration is permissible, as long as it's done legally. If mass immigration is to be challenged, they think it should be done by peacefully lobbying Congress rather than taking up arms in collective defense.
And the gun nut movement flies in the face of the theme of respecting and deferring to authority. It is explicitly about assuming an authority unto oneself, rather than delegating it to the usual authorities. If the authority figure insisted on its prerogative to use force to defend against harm and destruction, at the expense of the individual gun-owner doing so, the gun nut would escalate this into a turf war over who has the say-so, rather than deferring.
Indeed, the gun nut has a low view of authority figures, who are either too inept, too ignorant, or too callous to properly protect people from harm and property from destruction. In the nut's view, the authorities have too many protocols and regulations (imposed by that hidebound District Attorney), and too rigid of a chain-of-command structure (imposed by that out-of-touch desk jockey Chief of Police). The nut imagines liberating himself from these constraints by carrying a weapon himself, and following intuitive guidelines instead.
No one should overlook how anti-Establishment and anti-authoritarian the tough-on-crime movies of the 1970s and '80s were felt to be by contemporary audiences, whether the protagonist was an insider railing against the system like Dirty Harry or an outright vigilante as in Death Wish. The governmental authority structure was too unreliable for whatever combination of causes, and had to be substituted by a private citizen's use of force to prevent harm. Nor were they group-oriented -- it was not an organization of fellow citizens banding together as a para-police force, but a lone wolf defending himself or opening fire on behalf of others.
These movies reflected rather than shaped popular opinion of the time, but they're useful to study since they're so well preserved, unlike the opinions of real-life ordinary people.
It is this kind of vigilante fantasy that all Boomers share as a reference point for how to prevent crime, including the president (all the more so in his case, being so immersed in the media/entertainment world).
Even the Boomers who are against vigilantism assume that that's the only real option being discussed (it is), and spend their time arguing against vigilantism and by extension the whole gun nut movement associated with it, including arguing against gun rights broadly (Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC). It's not that the anti-gun Boomers are as deferential toward authority as conservatives are, they're just more confident in the government than are their libertarian peers. Thus with no conservatives among them, the Boomers argue between liberals and libertarians -- on this and all other issues.
We really need to hear a sober, reflective, cogent view on the role of guns in society from a social-cultural conservative who has communitarian rather than libertarian leanings. Look to Gen X for these voices.
In the meantime, here are three earlier posts with variations on the general theme of this one:
First, the myth of "Christian terrorism," which suggests a link to social-cultural conservatives, when right-wing violence actually comes from libertarian types who reveal a secular liberal morality, lack of church attendance or other religious practice, and a suspicion and antipathy toward authority and government.
That includes some school shooters, who are described as conservative despite abundant evidence of being libertarian and hostile to conservative values. Perhaps this is why the gun nuts get all the more defensive after a school shooting -- the killer's beliefs are more akin to their own, only acting out of a vindictive sense of justice (settling scores) rather than in self-defense.
Second, the pro-life movement as just another form of victimhood feminism (mother = victim, abortion doctor = criminal). It focuses on the liberal morality of preventing harm -- i.e., advancing the argument that abortion is murder. Ironically, this turns the debate away from morality, as everyone agrees that murder is wrong, and makes it a scientific debate about when "life" begins. A conservative view would focus on the warping of a natural process -- terminating a pregnancy -- and resonate with the theme of preserving what is natural over what is artificial (purity).
Third, prepping for cataclysms and neglecting ordinary emergencies. The gun nuts focus more on zombie apocalypse scenarios, causing them to neglect the kinds of problems that the typical conservadad has to show stewardship over at the home, office, and neighborhood.
As we shift out of the Reagan regime, first under the attempted but failed re-alignment of the GOP under Trump, and then by the Bernie sympathizers, we will adopt a new morality that focuses on the re-regulation of social life -- whether that's the economy or personal behavior. Remember, the Progressive Era was coincident with the Temperance movement.
Bernie is not a degenerate libertine like Bill Clinton, or Hillary for that matter, and his Millennial supporters want to be free of crushing student loan debt so that they can get married and start a family like normal people -- not so they can waste their newfound income on strippers and skipping out on child support payments like the Boomers. And Tulsi Gabbard could not be a more wholesome role model unless we saw her knitting slouchy beanies in between catching waves.
The late Gen X-ers and Millennials have lived through just about enough chaos and anarchy, from their vulnerable formative years up to the present, and they wouldn't mind a return to regulated life, to finally enjoy the normalcy like the ungrateful Boomers grew up under during the Wonder Years.