In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, like the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last week, anguish needs to find an outlet. Students have taken to the streets and the halls of political power demanding an end to the violence. Parents, in their darkest hour, talk of their pain to cable TV hosts and even to the President of the United States. There are so many questions about why and how this could happen. The natural human reaction is to try and answer them.

One of the most enduring and predictable answers is that the NRA squelches any and all forward movement on the issue of gun legislation. Many point to the power of the gun lobby as the most insidious and powerful force in all of politics.

However, pointing the finger at the gun lobby misses the underlying values that define the owning of a gun in the first place — the values of safety and freedom. In the American version of the ‘hierarchy of needs,’ these two values are at the top. According to Pew Research polling, 67 percent of gun owners own a weapon for “protection.” Guns = safety and security. Those who want more gun restrictions argue that guns are often used to harm not protect. That even the most conscientious gun owners can cause accidents. But, gun owners don’t see things that way. That may not make sense to many of us who don’t own one, but it does to them.

Gun owners also see the ownership of a firearm just as valuable as the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For example, when asked if freedom of speech is “essential to their own sense of freedom,” 94 percent of gun owners and 92 percent of non-gun owners agreed. But, when asked if the right to own guns was also an “essential freedom,” the divide between gun owners and non-gun owners was dramatic. Fully three-quarters of gun owners believe this is an “essential freedom” to just 35 percent of non-gun owners.

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Perhaps because of this belief of guns as symbols of freedom and safety, gun owners are much more likely to be politically engaged on this issue. According to a 2013 Pew poll, twice as many gun owners said they had contacted a public official on the issue of guns than non-gun owners (21 percent to 12 percent). This may change in the wake of the Parkland shooting. But, it also may not.

It is true that the NRA spent millions in 2016 supporting President Trump and a number of Senate GOP candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics combed the FEC data and reported that the NRA spent $50M in the 2016 cycle, $30M of which was spent on behalf of Trump. An impressive amount for sure, but nothing close to the $126M that Priorities USA, the SuperPAC affiliated with the Hillary Clinton campaign, spent on anti-Trump advertising that year.

Here’s another example. The NRA spent $2.5M in the Nevada Senate race for GOP candidate Joe Heck. Meanwhile, two liberal independent expenditure groups, Planned Parenthood and the EMILY’s List-backed Women Vote, spent twice as much ($5M) against Heck. And, when compared to real heavy hitters of SuperPAC world, the Democratic Senate Majority PAC and the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, the NRA spending in the Silver State was a drop in the bucket. Those two SuperPACs combined spent more than $25M in that race last cycle. Oh, and by the way, Heck lost that race. 

Successful politicians and political movements meet people where they are, not where they believe they should be. Portraying the NRA as an all-powerful manipulator of gullible gun owners not only insults gun owners but only further deepens the cultural divide on the issue. The NRA spends a lot of money on political activities, but so do lots of other organizations who are trying to promote their own ideological agenda. To say the NRA is more effective than all other groups is to give them more credit than they are due. These ad campaigns won’t work if their message didn’t already resonate. We have to understand where people are coming from instead of assigning them intent. Only then can we have a reasonable debate and a reasonable chance of progress.

Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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