Assistant professor of political science Matthew Lacombe has made it his mission to understand and explain political power in the United States. He does so by researching interest groups and political parties, social identity and political ideology, inequality and representation, and American political development.
His first book, Billionaires and Stealth Politics (2018), was co-written with Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright and details the political preferences and behavior of U.S. billionaires. His next book, Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force, is set to publish next spring. Using the National Rifle Association (NRA) as an example, Firepower explains how interest groups can shape their members’ behavior in ways that help them advance their political agendas.
Lacombe is now sharing his expertise in a Barnard course called Gun Politics in America. The material is timely, in part because New York’s attorney general Letitia James sued the NRA on August 8 on charges of corruption and misspending. In this “Break This Down” interview, Lacombe discusses the importance of his fall class, the key texts on his syllabus, and what can be learned from analyzing the NRA.
Why do you think it’s important to teach college students about gun politics in America?
For one thing, the rate of gun violence and gun misuse in the U.S. is a major public health problem. Unpacking the politics surrounding this hotly debated topic is tricky to do well because it’s so complex. It’s particularly important to dissect the gun debate within the context of the social and political meaning of guns for many Americans. Without a full accounting of all the factors involved, the debate over guns is easily oversimplified and misunderstood.
Beyond the importance and relevance of the topic itself, gun politics are a useful — and, at least in my opinion, fascinating — lens through which to examine American politics more broadly. Despite having a somewhat narrow focus at first glance, the course actually covers a broad range of topics and questions: What is it that makes interest groups like the NRA powerful or, in some cases, not so powerful? What are the causes and consequences of alliances between interest groups and political parties, like the NRA’s alignment with the Republican Party? What drives the behavior of voters, how are their behaviors shaped by interest groups, and what consequences does this have for government policy outcomes? What is a political identity — hint: gun ownership is one! — and why do such identities matter? And how are important social identities, such as race and gender, related to individuals’ political views and other political identities? The list goes on and on — my hope is that students leave the course not just knowledgeable about gun politics but with a more fine-tuned understanding of U.S. political institutions and what motivates the behavior of American voters.
What are some of the key texts on your syllabus?
I’m excited that this coming fall’s version of the course will cover my own forthcoming book on the topic, which explores how the NRA has strategically and systematically shaped the political behavior of its supporters over time — especially by building a distinct group identity around gun ownership — and used that behavior to advance its pro-gun agenda. Another exciting text is Citizen Protectors by Jennifer Carlson, who participated in firearms programs and carried a gun herself while doing research; her book explores the interrelation of gun ownership and masculinity in an era of middle- and working-class socioeconomic decline. We will also read an authoritative text on the history of the gun control movement called Disarmed by Kristin Goss, who has previously joined the class via Skype to discuss her work. Other exciting topics include the relationship between guns and race, as well as the evolution of the Second Amendment.
How has the NRA positioned itself as a powerful obstacle to gun reform, even as a majority of Americans support such legislation?
Although its political spending certainly doesn’t hurt its cause, the NRA’s war chest is not what makes it stand out; other groups, including some that don’t seem to have comparable influence, make similar campaign contributions. Some groups, especially business groups, spend far more on lobbying, and the NRA was rather influential even before it started contributing large sums to politics.
What my research finds is that the NRA’s power is — to a great extent — related to the political behavior of its supporters, who, despite comprising a minority of Americans, are unusually politically active and dedicated to the gun rights cause. And one major reason that gun owners are so politically active is that the NRA has built a distinct worldview around guns, portraying gun ownership as an important political identity and gun rights as central to a broader set of political views. The NRA then uses this worldview to mobilize political participation on behalf of its agenda by arguing that gun rights and the gun owner identity are under dire threat, while imploring its members to take action. This ability to politically mobilize its supporters is a big reason why the NRA has been able to advance gun rights even while most Americans support stronger gun regulations.
Despite being outnumbered, Americans who oppose gun control are more likely to contact public officials about it and to base their votes on it. As a result, many politicians believe that supporting gun regulation is more likely to lose them votes than to gain them votes.
What lessons might studying the NRA have for gun control advocates?
Gun control advocates can follow the NRA’s lead to frame support for gun control in terms of its relation to important identities that individuals hold, rather than, for example, making statistic-focused appeals about the efficacy of particular gun control policies. The NRA has an advantage in that owning and using guns often involves activities that support for gun control does not; there’s no real gun control alternative to going hunting or visiting a shooting range, both of which can be social activities.
Nonetheless, gun control advocates can bring the issue to life by emphasizing how gun violence impacts students, teachers, and parents. They’ve been successful at this in recent years with groups like Moms Demand Action and the student-led Never Again MSD, which center the mothers, children, and students who have been impacted by gun violence. These recent efforts have reinvigorated the gun control movement, but they’ll need to maintain momentum in order to translate their successes into meaningful policy changes.
—VERONICA SUCHODOLSKI ’19
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