Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force, Matthew J. Lacombe
How has the National Rifle Association (NRA) become such an influential political force? This is the question that Matthew J. Lacombe seeks to answer in Firepower, his important analysis of the group's power and evolution. Lacombe argues that key to the NRA's influence has been its use of what he terms “ideational resources.” The NRA has crafted a specific gun-owner identity among its members and cultivated a coherent ideology whereby gun rights are tightly connected to other issues, like crime or the role of government. The organization has appealed to this identity and ideology to mobilize members against gun control, generating one of the strongest political forces in the United States and fundamentally shaping federal gun policy.
Lacombe carefully tracks how the NRA employed these ideational resources through communications with group members in the organization's magazine, American Rifleman. In editorials, NRA leaders described policies in terms of the gun-owner lifestyle and values, emphasizing threats to the gun-owner identity, rather than dry policy details. Group members replicated this language in their communications with newspapers and politicians, in sharp contrast with gun control supporters, who did not draw on identity frames. While the group was not always partisan, Lacombe illustrates how the political ideology cultivated by the NRA led to increasing alignment with the Republican Party starting in the 1970s. This, in addition to its ability to mobilize members, poised it to become an indispensable member of the Republican Party coalition.
This book is engaging, and the data collection is impressive, with almost 80 years of content analysis of American Rifleman and letters to the editor in major newspapers. It is also theoretically grounded and makes valuable contributions that should be taken up by scholars of interest groups and power. Lacombe draws on the theory that there are different faces of power, showing that both the NRA's first and second faces of power—its ability to squash proposals and to set the policy agenda, respectively—rely on the group's mobilization of its membership, rather than on campaign contributions, as some have asserted. Furthermore, he describes the NRA's use of ideational resources as an example of the third face of power: influence on culture and identities. The connection to the third face of power is important, as this component of the faces of power has been understudied.
Lacombe makes an interesting theoretical assertion: that faces of power may impact each other. For the NRA, the third face of power has enabled the organization to exercise the other two faces of power; by fostering and appealing to ideational resources, the organization has shaped members' values, pushed them to see those values as politically important, and driven them to act on those beliefs against threatening legislation. This insight should spur scholars to consider why some groups might use this kind of appeal, while others, like AARP, stick to appeals focused on policy benefits. Does the fact that the NRA is essentially representing a particular group of hobbyists require appeals to be more identity-focused in order to generate cohesion and commitment, while other groups can draw on the material benefits related to employment or government programs to spur members to action? Do other hobby groups use these kinds of appeals, and have they had success? Might nonhobby groups under attack, like teachers' unions, utilize similar appeals to increase cohesion and group mobilization? This fascinating study will be useful to group organizers and scholars alike.
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