There is so much to like about this letter from the National Rifle Association to open carry demonstrators, not the least of which is its jaunty opening sentence. “Here at NRA, we are big fans of responsible behavior,” it begins, “legal mandates, not so much.” For a moment I hoped it would continue in that vein, and the NRA had released a letter written by Jackie Mason. But it quickly adopts a more serious tone, suited to its purpose as maybe the first ever public communication from the National Rifle Association urging people to be a little less nuts for guns. It detours into a long, slippery-slope argument about a particular kind of new safety device, but mostly it sends a message to Open Carry Texas: ” just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.” Now that’s a thesis.
The letter does not mention Open Carry Texas by name, but it does refer to people carrying “loaded long guns” in restaurants. Seriously, guys, don’t take your guns to Chili’s. We’ve talked about open carry rallies before, and the semiotic problems that arise when your peaceful expression of dissenting speech is an assault rifle. It’s a kind of expression that is likely to scare the hell out of people—particularly those who do not own guns themselves. What’s exciting about this letter is that the NRA actually agrees with us:
[W]hile unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself.
Emphasis on “weird” theirs. The letter goes on to suggest that for people not used to guns who may be undecided on the issue of their control, seeing a bunch of guys roll up on Sonic with AR-15s might solidify their opinions in the wrong way.
It’s a good point, made all the more striking because Wayne LaPierre signed off on it. We’re talking about the same man who, after the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested that teachers be required to carry guns. His entire job is to make it easier to sell guns, and from him the mere implication that you might not need a Kalashnikov at TGI Friday’s is startling.
It’s a bold message to deliver to his supporters, and he has to be careful about it. The last thing LaPierre needs is a bunch of members arguing that the NRA is somehow not pro-gun enough. And so he massages them a little with three rhetorical strategies: diction, an argument that establishes his bona fides, and careful framing.
The diction part is funny, as it always is with conservative-to-conservative rhetoric. Consider the second sentence: “We think the Founders of this country were right to trust its people with the freedom to make their own choices.” Students of Revolutionary-period rhetoric will note an interesting twist on the philosophy of the time. Where Enlightenment-era advocates for American independence argued that rights were natural—something god-given or otherwise inherently possessed, rather than being granted by governments—this sentence suggests that the founders gave them to us. It even capitalizes Founders, as if they were of biblical stature.
That kind of semi-religious veneration is a hallmark of contemporary conservatism, and the author is wise to work it in early and reassure his readers that he has not gone soft. It’s a strategy that continues with the long, boring argument against “smart” guns that can only be fired by one authorized user. From an organizational standpoint, there’s no reason for it to be in this letter. Logically, it’s a pretty flagrant slippery slope, and practically, any legislation that might make smart guns an issue is far off. They should have cut it, but they didn’t, probably because it reminds the reader that the NRA is still against anything that resembles gun control—even inventions.
That’s an important reminder, because the author is about to chastise Texas gun-rights activists for going heels at Chili’s. He has established his conservative and anti-legislative bona fides, so he won’t be mistaken for opposing open carry itself. But he also needs to convince open carry supporters not to make asses of themselves. He needs to frame the issue in a way they can understand, and so he makes it about responsible ownership:
If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences. These consequences could be simple and transitory, such as watching a trophy buck bound away into the woods after a missed shot from an improperly sighted rifle. They could also be lasting and consequential, such as turning an undecided voter into an antigun voter because of causing that person fear or offense.
That is a genius presentation, right there. With this analogy, the author casts responsible public advocacy as a subset of responsible gun ownership, like sighting a rifle. You don’t leave your gun loaded on top of the refrigerator, so why would you bring it to the mall and yell at people?
The beauty of this message is that it lets open carry advocates be proud of their decision to avoid ostentatious displays, just as they are proud of their guns. Not scaring people with your AR-15 is an act of responsible care, like cleaning it. This letter reframes a superficially anti-gun position as a part and parcel of ownership, and in so doing it appeals to people who consider gun ownership a central part of their identities. It’s nice to see the NRA using its rhetorical powers for good, for once.