Port: A fundamental misunderstanding of gun politics in America

The popular narrative is that America has strong protections for gun rights because the NRA imposes its will on our political process, but that's false. For better or worse, America's gun laws generally reflect the will of the people.

The front page of the June 2, 2022, edition of the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
The front page of the June 2, 2022, edition of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead featuring North Dakota elected officials and their ratings from the National Rifle Association.
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MINOT, N.D. — With another horrific school shooting in the headlines, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead (a publication owned by my employer) leaned into the coverage , plastering the front page of their June 2 print edition with the grades North Dakota's elected officials have received from the National Rifle Association.

It left me disappointed. Not because this is bad journalism — it's always illuminating to learn about the relationships between interest groups and politicians — but because I'm just not sure what's been revealed.

Elected officials representing a state that has more guns per capita than Texas are generally pro-gun rights?

Is anyone surprised?

But more problematic is that these sort of stories are premised on what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding of gun politics in America.


The popular narrative when gun violence is a trending topic is that America is pro-gun thanks to the machinations of the NRA and its bought-off politicians in the Republican party. It makes for a good talking point for shallow pundits, rank partisans, and ranting Twitter celebrities, but it's not rooted in reality.

Gun culture in America isn't a top-down thing.

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The NRA, as notorious as it is in political rhetoric, doesn't (relatively speaking) spend a lot of money trying to influence politicians.

As I noted in a previous column , in the last election cycle, the NRA was among the top 1,000 political donors, per financial disclosures, nor was it in the top 250 organizations in terms of lobbying outlays.

In terms of independent spending, in the 2020 cycle, pro-gun rights organizations (including the NRA) spent less than a quarter of what pro-gun control organizations spent.

In North Dakota, in 2020 , the NRA Victory Fund made just seven contributions to North Dakota politicians (a half dozen Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Burgum) totaling a measly $2,000.

How can the NRA and other pro-gun rights organizations get away with being out-gunned (forgive me) in the political spending arena while still largely winning the political debate over gun control?

They don't have to spend big. They're representing the generally pro-gun rights attitudes of most Americans.


You don't have to spend a lot of money on political contributions and lobbying when you're representing a generally organic political position.

The anti-gun/pro-gun control crowd may not want to hear that, but it's the truth.

Why isn't this more widely acknowledged?

Our commentariat in the news media prefers their issues dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. They believe there are only two categories: You're either pro-gun, or anti-gun.

This obscures a more complicated reality.

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One can be generally pro-gun, but also open to ideas about new gun laws to protect against things like mass shootings or suicides ( the latter is the largest category of American gun deaths ). NRA members are, obviously, very pro-gun, but polling indicates a majority of them are open, at least in concept, to things like comprehensive background checks and "red flag" laws.

Of course, being open to a concept is different from being in favor of a specific legislative enactment of that concept. You're not going to find a lot of gun rights supporters who will get behind a "red flag bill" that doesn't include substantial due process protections, which is another complicating factor.

Just because gun rights proponents are against a specific "red flag" bill doesn't mean they're against any "red flag" bill.


Consider this in the context of the abortion debate, which is popularly (but not accurately) depicted as a fight between people who are for it and people who are against it. Yet someone who thinks of themselves as pro-life, who generally opposes abortion, can also be in favor of laws that allow for some abortions. Most people who are pro-life support some form of legal abortion, such as in cases of rape or incest, or when the health of the mother is at jeopardy.

A plurality of Americans supports 15-week abortion bans . Does that make them pro-choice, or pro-life? Members of Planned Parenthood and National Right to Life probably have divergent views on that question.

If you think the government should have a process through which people exhibiting severe mental health can have their gun rights removed until they get some help and improve, does that make you pro-gun or anti-gun?

This is complicated stuff, isn't it?

The popular narrative is that America has strong protections for gun rights because the NRA imposes its will on our political process, but that's false.

For better or worse, America's gun laws generally reflect the will of the people.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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