From American Riflemen to American Rifleman: Partisanship and the National Rifle Association

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Cari S. Babitzke, Boston University
In the presidential election cycle of 2000, Charlton Heston raised the rhetorical stakes in the firearms debate while raising a replica flintlock rifle, proclaiming he would give up his “freedom” when then-candidate Al Gore pried his gun from his “cold, dead hands.” Standing on the dais addressing the National Rifle Association’s 129th annual convention, Heston embodied the American rifleman: a potent political identity born of personal and social commitments to a particular, mythologized American heritage.

Over the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, firearms advocates – NRA leaders, its members, and even non-affiliated hunters and shooters – engaged in a little-recognized identity politics. As a self-selecting community, firearms advocates built and maintained an identity centered around a distinct “Americanism:” a rugged, individualistic, self-sufficient, populist ideal. By drawing together tropes of shared traditions, independence, patriotism, equality of man endowed by their creator, living in a self-governing republic with individual liberties potentially under threat, Americanism bound sportsmen into a cohesive community with distinct, traditional values.

This traditionalism accounts, in part, for the relative comfort firearms advocates found in the partisanship of the New Right. In other words, understanding the social identity of this community helps to understand identity politics of firearms advocates as well as the Republican Party. Analyzing editorials, articles, and advertisements in the NRA’s flagship periodical, American Rifleman, as well as letters, telegrams, and telephone exchanges between self-identifying firearms owners, NRA members, and their congressional representatives, this paper explores the construction and evolution of this politically potent identity.

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