How the N.R.A. Builds Loyalty and Fanaticism

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Another needless tragedy in America: This time a gunman opened fire in a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., killing at least 12 people and injuring many more.

These horrors happen far more often in America than in other advanced countries partly because of the outsize political influence of the National Rifle Association. N.R.A. candidates suffered some important defeats in Tuesday’s midterm elections, but in a broad swath of red state America it remains potent, controlling politicians who know that an N.R.A. endorsement can make or break an election.

It is not the richest interest group. The National Association of Realtors has spent twice as much in the 2018 federal election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It is not the largest interest group. It claims about six million members (probably an exaggeration); AARP has more than six times that number.

But the N.R.A. attracts incredible loyalty from its members. “That’s the critical thing people miss,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy. He said that the group combines a shared pastime with “ideological fervor.”

“It’s a layer on top of a hobby,” he said. “It’s bowling plus fanaticism.”

All N.R.A. members receive a subscription to one of the organization’s magazines. We studied one of them, The American Rifleman, for clues about how the N.R.A. spurs its members’ zealotry.

. . .

The group cannot “backtrack from the apocalyptic messaging,” Professor Spitzer at SUNY Cortland said. “They can’t say, ‘We won.’ They still need a villain, even though they hit the jackpot with Donald Trump.”

One of the reasons the United States has so many gun deaths is the N.R.A. and its extremist defense of handgun ownership, almost without limit. The evolution of the covers underscores that a group once about hunting and outdoor sports has transformed itself into a far-right political organization that simultaneously professes patriotism and promotes a virulent hostility to any government efforts to save the lives of Americans dying from guns at a rate of one every 15 minutes.

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