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The NRA and Polarization in the Gun Debate

Today’s political landscape is deeply polarized. From liberals to conservatives, there are serious divides that are pervasive throughout politics. One group that has used the Internet and email in particular to contribute to and sustain an environment of polarization is the National Rifle Association (NRA). This paper examines how Wayne LaPierre as spokesperson for the NRA has used the rhetoric of polarization to address the gun debate in emails to members and potential members of the NRA.  Before discussing the emails that were sent, a brief history of the NRA is provided followed by an explanation of the rhetoric of polarization.

The NRA was founded in 1871. The primary purpose of the NRA when it was established as well as today has been to focus on firearms education. However, over the years the NRA has become widely recognized as a major political force and according to its website (www.nra.org) as “America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.” The website for the NRA also acknowledges that, “Our successes would not be possible without the tireless efforts and countless hours of service our nearly four million members have given to champion Second Amendment rights and support NRA programs.” Central to organizations such as the NRA is the creation of a collective identity to help recruit and sustain members. According to Wall (2007) “collective identity defines boundaries of who is within the group, what the group believes, how the group sees the world and, ultimately, helps to establish trust, which is essential in getting members to take actions that may be time-consuming, uncomfortable or even dangerous (p.261).” Creating a collective identity is one aspect of the rhetoric of polarization.

According to King and Anderson (1971) “polarization as a rhetorical phenomenon, may be defined as the process by which an extremely diversified public is coalesced into two or more highly contrasting, mutually exclusive groups sharing a high degree of internal solidarity in those beliefs which the persuader considers salient (p.244).”  Brasted (2012) in her article, “MoveOn: The Rhetoric of Polarization,” created a useful model of polarization rhetoric based on creating feelings of solidarity as well as creating the perception of a common foe. Feelings of solidarity can be created by using strategies of affirmation such as the self-justifying image. Additional tactics that can be used to create feelings of solidarity include identification techniques such as common ground tactics and the assumed “we.” According to Brasted, creating the perception of a common foe can be accomplished through the subversion strategies of weakening or destroying credibility and exploiting fear and prejudices. To be effective, this model acknowledges the importance of the environment in which the rhetoric is being used. Polarization rhetoric according to this model is most effective when there is a charged emotional environment, extant polarization exists and the agent views the world as a battle of opposites and presents themselves as the only redeemer. Through the application of Brasted’s model, this paper will demonstrate how Wayne LaPierre and the NRA have used polarization rhetoric related to the gun debate.

Five emails sent to current and former members from Wayne LaPierre, Vice President of the NRA, through the month of January 2013 were analyzed. These emails represent emails sent to members during the NRA’s anti-gun regulation push. The timeframe for this study was selected because these emails were a reaction to the call for gun control laws after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary. These emails are intended to influence current and former members of the NRA and create a reality for them to move them to action. The emails focused on the threat to the second amendment posed by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Congressional members and the media that support them.  The anti-Obama, anti-administration theme that runs through the emails is representative of the larger anti-gun regulation persuasive message of the NRA.

As Brasted’s model indicates, environmental factors must be taken into consideration when examining polarization rhetoric. Pre-existing polarization and an emotionally charged environment are necessary for polarization rhetoric to be successful. In the case of the NRA, during the timeframe of this study, potential NRA members were indeed feeling a sense of extant polarization with liberals, which existed in a highly emotionally charged environment because of the shooting deaths of 26 people, including 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary school on December 14, 2012. In addition, with the immediate call for gun reform by Senator Feinstein and President Obama following the shootings many NRA members believed that there were evil forces that they needed to fight to protect their second amendment rights. The fear that the administration was planning to infringe on citizen’s second amendment rights is reflected in the emails sent to members during this time period.  For example, an email sent on January 15, 2013 states, “Right now, they’re steamrolling ahead with legislation that would ban your guns, register your ammunition purchases, and even force you to register the firearms you already own with Obama’s anti-gun bureaucrats.”

The methods that the NRA uses to recruit members are designed to acquire members who already feel a sense of extant polarization with liberals. The threat of taking away their second amendment rights as well as the tragedy at Sandy Hook created an environment that was emotionally charged and contributed to the polarization. The NRA believes that President Obama and his administration are the evil forces that they have to oppose and fight. Finally, the NRA and especially Wayne LaPierre present themselves as the only redeemer. Emphasizing the importance of membership, working together and the importance of each individual’s contribution to the organization, the NRA has positioned itself as a collective of members with shared values. One of the goals of the NRA was to persuade those who already felt a sense of polarization with liberals that they should identify themselves as members of the NRA. The result has been a significant increase in membership in the NRA since Sandy Hook. According to a statement by the NRA, they had added 100,000 new members in the weeks immediately following Sandy Hook and their goal was to reach of total of 5 million members before the gun debate is over (Harkinson, p.4). This was done in part through the use of polarization rhetoric and by creating a sense of solidarity which will be discussed next.

One of the key dimensions of polarization is a powerful feeling of solidarity. In other words, strong group cohesiveness or collective identification is necessary if polarizing rhetoric is to function. The strategy of affirmation involves selecting images that will promote a strong sense of group identity. This strategy may be accomplished through a variety of tactics that are illustrated in Wayne LaPierre’s e-mails.

The strategy of affirmation is concerned with creating solidarity or a strong sense of group identity. One rhetorical tactic that can be used to accomplish this is the concept of common ground. Through the common ground technique the rhetor equates or links himself or herself with others in an overt manner. The first is the expression of concern for the individual as exampled in the statement, “The media has been on a vicious tirade to slander and intimidate you, me, and our fellow NRA members. We’ve been called terrorists and worse. They’ve blamed us and our Second Amendment freedoms for the actions of violent criminals and madmen. Our lives have been threatened.” (January 15, 2013)  The second tactic employed by LaPierre is the recognition of individual contributions.  Examples of this are the following statements.

“I warned you this day was coming and now it’s here. This is the fight of the century and I need you on board with NRA now more than ever. I urge you to renew or upgrade your NRA membership as soon as possible. If it’s more convenient for you to do so online, you can follow this link: www.NRA.org/StandAndFight.” (January 15, 2013).

“Now is the time when I need you and every gun owner to put an NRA membership card in your wallet and STAND AND FIGHT for our freedom. No one can take your place at the front lines of this battle…if we lose now, we lose everything.”  (January 15, 2013)
“We are NOTHING without you. Thank you for your patriotism and your commitment to freedom. By working together, we can win this historic fight.” (January 31, 2013, I stood up to them)

The most commonly used tactic by LaPierre was the espousal of shared values where the emphasis was on explicitly stating the commonality of values and beliefs between himself and the recipients of the emails.

“If you’re like most gun owners and have been wondering what’s next, you won’t want to miss Wayne’s speech tonight. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive the latest updates at NRAStandandFight.com, please take a moment to visit and do so now.” (January 22, 2013).

“You and I have suffered blistering and brutal attacks over the last several weeks. We’ve been called every name in the book. Our values have been mocked. Our love of freedom has been ridiculed. All of this because gun ban politicians and media elites want America to believe we’re some sort of second class citizens…just so they can silence, shame and sideline us while they destroy the Second Amendment.” (January 31, 2013, I stood up to them)

Finally, the tactic of the advocacy of benefits is evident in the NRA emails, wherein LaPierre presents membership in the organization as a value in itself when he states, “But my strength, and the strength of our entire NRA organization comes from you and your strong commitment to our membership. I need you in our corner TODAY…Together, we will defend our freedom.” (January 15, 2013)

As members of the NRA, people can make a difference and accomplish significant victories. By highlighting the importance of people, recognizing individual contributions, citing shared values, and touting the benefits of membership, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, works to create solidarity, identification, unity, and feelings of group identity among its members through a rhetoric of polarization in these emails.

The emails also made use of the assumed “we” technique to create a common identity and sense of solidarity. Examples of this tactic from the emails include, “if we lose now, we lose everything,” “we will defend our freedom,” “we’re engaged in the fight of our lives,” and “We’ve been called every name in the book.” An email from January 15, 2013 provides an example of the “we” and “they” dichotomy when it states, “We’ve been called terrorists and worse. They’ve blamed us and our Second Amendment freedoms for the actions of violent criminals and madmen.” By using the assumed “we”, the phrasing in these emails expresses a sharing of interests that seems taken for granted. It is assumed that all of the members of the NRA share the perspective of the writer of the email, Wayne LaPierre. In other words, all of the email recipients identify with the group and share the beliefs, values and goals of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. Through the use of terms like ‘we’ and ‘they’ these emails imply a powerful feeling of solidarity. A strong sense of group cohesiveness and unity is created.

The strategy of affirmation alone is not enough to hold the loyalty of the group members and to mobilize them into action. Identification of a common foe through the strategy of subversion is also essential when using polarization rhetoric. A strategy of subversion is evident when a communicator’s motive is to weaken or destroy credibility. The NRA has consolidated its members as freedom loving Americans, who are united on the basis of a common enemy. In general this enemy is anyone who threatens their freedoms, particularly their second amendment rights.

As has been noted exploitation of fears and prejudices of the group is an important tactic of the strategy of subversion as is efforts to weaken or destroy credibility. Presenting a situation or a foe a certain way, the NRA creates a particular reality which the group members are able to accept and act upon. In other words, through the framing of its emails the NRA is able to undermine the credibility of competing groups, ideologies, or institutions.

By destroying the credibility of concepts and exploiting fears and prejudices, the NRA is creating a polarized reality: you are either with them or against them. The rhetoric of polarization contained in the emails sent by Wayne LaPierre illustrates the view of the world as a battle of opposites. A simplistic reality is created in which the dichotomy of conservative versus liberal dominates and a common foe exists. With an anti-gun regulation and an anti-Obama theme running throughout many of the emails the NRA adopted a strategy of subversion and attempted to weaken or destroy President Obama and his administration’s credibility.

Employing the strategy of subversion, the emails illustrated how President Obama and his allies were seen as the common enemy of members of the NRA. The NRA has created an image of Obama as ignoring the facts and opinions of others including the NRA. An email with the subject line, “They want to blame you for everything” sent on January 15, 2013 provides an example of this when it states,

“Last week, NRA sat in a White House meeting that was sold to the public as an ‘open discussion’ about how to improve school safety. But that was a dirty lie. They didn’t listen to gun owners’ concerns… they didn’t consider any solutions on how we can keep our kids safe…instead Barack Obama, Joe Biden and their gun ban allies in Congress only want to BLAME you, VILIFY you, and STRIP you of your second amendment freedoms.”

This email also presents President Obama and others are liars. This emphasis on a lack of truthfulness coming from President Obama and his gun ban supporters is further illustrated in an email sent on January 18, 2013. This email states, “It’s time to STAND AND FIGHT for freedom! That’s why I’m going on Sean Hannity’s show tonight for one full hour. If you want to hear the facts about gun control’s failures, and hear the truth about how NRA is fighting to make our families, homes, schools and communities safer, then I urge you to watch. If you can’t watch tonight, record it so you can watch it this weekend.”

The threat to the second amendment because of President Obama is further developed in an email sent on January 31, 2013, that states, “NRA is the only organization in America that can save our Second Amendment freedoms from Barack Obama’s vicious assault on our gun rights. But we are NOTHING without you. Thank you for your patriotism and your commitment to freedom. By working together, we can win this historic fight.” This email is very critical of Obama as the foe to the group and attempts to undermine the President and his administration. The emphasis is on subverting Obama by characterizing his position as a “vicious assault on our gun rights.”  The assumed “we” is also present throughout this email to emphasize the commonality of beliefs of the members and the solidarity against President Obama.

Wayne LaPierre and the NRA wanted its members to accept the anti-gun regulation position and the image of President Obama as a liar. These emails provide evidence of the NRAs attempt to weaken President Obama’s credibility and they also illustrate the tactic of exploiting fears and prejudices surrounding the issue of gun regulation and the second amendment.

The thought of legislation placing limits on gun ownership is highly unpopular among members of the NRA and Wayne LaPierre. They are fearful of President Obama, Vice President Biden, other legislators and the media’s attempt to address gun violence through limiting gun ownership. By exposing President Obama’s desire to regulate guns as being based on lies and false information, the NRA and Wayne LaPierre played on the fears of its members that there was a real threat to their second amendment rights and freedom. The strongly held pro-gun belief and absolute belief in the second amendment of the NRA’s members and Wayne LaPierre stands in stark opposition to President Obama and his plans for gun regulation. Therefore, Wayne LaPierre portrays President Obama and others as common enemies who are not to be trusted and who threaten our freedoms.

“Right at this very moment we’re engaged in the fight of our lives over the future of freedom. Anti-gun members of Congress, the state legislatures and the national media are furiously attacking our gun rights with no restraint and no holds barred. And they will not stop until they BAN hundreds of commonly owned firearms, IMPOSE sky high taxes on guns and ammunition, CLOSE gun shops and shows, and DESTROY your freedom to defend yourself, your home and your loved ones.” (January 31, 2013, My recent request)

“It’s not about protecting children. It’s not about stopping crime. It’s about banning your guns…PERIOD!” (January 15, 2013)

“The nightmare battle that we’ve always feared is now at our doorstep, and the outcome of this battle boils down to arming every gun owner with the truth.” (January 18, 2013)

Some of the email comments specifically addressed the threat to freedom. Examples of this include: “…help NRA win the battle to protect the Second Amendment…Thank you for your friendship and support, and your steadfast loyalty to the cause of freedom.” (January 18, 2013). “Our love of freedom has been ridiculed… Thank you for your patriotism and your commitment to freedom.” (January 31, 2013, I stood up to them)  “I’ll fight freedom’s enemies.” (January 15, 2013)  “Right now at this very moment we’re engaged in the fight of our lives over the future of freedom…We need your support to protect our freedoms from politicians who want to take them away. (January 31, 2013, My recent request).

These emails, along with the others previously discussed, wanted the members to accept the framing of the situation as a battle for freedom and the image of President Obama as a threat to freedom. President Obama is portrayed as a liar. These emails addressing gun regulation and the threat to the second amendment illustrate the tactic of exploiting fears and Wayne LaPierre’s attempt to weaken President Obama’s credibility.

Through the strategy of subversion in its emails, the NRA framed President Obama as a common foe. Through a careful selection of images, the NRA was able to undermine President Obama and his administration’s ideologies. As evidenced in the examples provided, the NRA exploited the fears and prejudices of its members and weakened the credibility of President Obama and his administration.  Evidence of the NRA’s success in creating a reality that its members adopted is provided by the increase in membership in the months following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Another important aspect of polarization rhetoric is that the rhetor presents themselves as the only redeemer. In the case of these emails, Wayne LaPierre clearly presents himself as the redeemer and by extension the NRA. This is illustrated in the following examples.

“But I won’ let these brutal and bitterly personal attacks on you and me go unchallenged. I’ll fight freedom’s enemies. I’ll fight to make our schools safer. And I’ll fight for your fundamental right to self-defense and your sacred Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” (January 31, 2013 My recent request)

“And only NRA fights for your rights every hour of every day. But we’re only as strong as your commitment to NRA, so please renew now. Thank you!” (January 31, 2013, My recent request)

“So I went to Congress to STAND AND FIGHT on behalf of you, myself and every other freedom-loving gun owner in America. I looked our elected officials dead in the eye, and I told them in no uncertain terms that if they want a fight…THEN THEY JUST GOT ONE.” (January 31, 2013, I stood up to them)

These emails sent by Wayne LaPierre provide a good example of the use of polarization rhetoric. Key to the NRA’s success has been its ability to create a collective identity by consolidating its members through strategies of affirmation while at the same time uniting against and targeting political enemies through strategies of subversion. As reflected in the emails, LaPierre and the NRA are ready for the fight to protect freedom-loving Americans and their second amendment rights. The significant increase in their membership after the Sandy Hook tragedy indicates that they have been successful in utilizing polarization rhetoric to help create a collective identity that people relate to. Additionally, a No vote by Congress in April 2013 related to universal back ground checks signals a preliminary success for the NRA and its members. However, the battle is far from over and given its history, the NRA will continue to utilize polarization rhetoric to ensure future protection of gun rights.

References

Brasted, Monica, “MoveOn: The Rhetoric of Polarization,” Relevant Rhetoric, 3 (2012).

Harkinson, Josh, “D0es the NRA Really Have 4 Million Members? Why the nation’s biggest pro-gun group may not be quite as big as it claims,” Mother Jones, January 14, 2013.

King, Andrew and Floyd Anderson, “Nixon, Agnew and the ‘Silent Majority’: A Case Study in the Rhetoric of Polarization,” Western Speech, 35 (1971): 243-255.

Wall, Melissa, “Social movements and email; expressions of online identity in the globalization protests” New Media & Society, 9(2007): 261.

About Dr. Monica Brasted

Chairperson & Associate Professor Department of Communication The College at Brockport
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