A False and Dangerous Movement

This past Monday, the Institute of Politics at Harvard held their first event in a pilot series for students entitled “Moments to Movements.” The series is billed as “a workshop on building strong and sustainable movements,” and the publicity email that was sent out to students was generally unremarkable, noting only that the panel would explore gun control as a case study.

Unremarkable, I should say, only if you have not memorized the names of former chairmen of the National Rifle Association.

If you have memorized those names, however, one name on the panel may have caught your eye. David Keene was the chairman of the NRA from 2011 to 2013. Notable events of these years include the 2012 presidential election, in which the NRA spent $19 million —and, in addition, the date of December 14th, 2012, when a gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered 26 people, 20 of them children, with a semiautomatic rifle and semi-automatic pistols as backup.

I did not go to the event, nor did I talk to anyone who went, so I don’t know what was discussed.

But I do know that just about a week ago, a gunman entered a classroom on the campus of Umqua Community College in southern Oregon, opened fire, and killed ten people. I know that beyond the horrifically consistent stream of mass shootings, on an average day, 88 Americans are killed by gun violence. I know that more Americans have died from gun violence since 1970 than have died in every war dating back to the American Revolution. I know that lax gun regulations in the United States have led to this startling statistic: Between 2009 and 2010, 20,000 American firearms were found at Mexican crime scenes, and thousands more weapons from this side of the border are currently in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

Anyone can learn these disturbing statistics, and so many more, from a few simple Google searches. You might conclude from this information that we need to pass comprehensive gun reform in this country, now. I certainly do. You may even conclude that inviting David Keene to speak on a panel at Harvard, five days after the latest mass shooting in our country, is disrespectful to the victims and their families. I would go even further and say that is not only disrespectful, but also that it is unacceptable.

That said, even if you and I reach all the same moral conclusions, what about the event series’ stated purpose of exploring “sociopolitical movements… not in terms of ideological position, but rather as a vehicle” for learning skills about building movements? Might David Keene’s experience with the NRA still offer eager, movement-ready Harvard students a chance to build their grassroots organizing skills and strategic capacities?

It’s true that the NRA has been highly successful in recent years in blocking public gun safety research, capitalizing on anti-government sentiment, and building vehement popular support, even as the numbers of gun deaths only continue to rise. But this level of success is not due to grassroots organizing. True social movements call into question the prevailing status quo. They are collective efforts that require sweat, tears, and sometimes even blood. Leaders of social movements organize communities into building political power, in order to make their voices heard on the issues that are most salient to them. Social movements, therefore, rise from the ground up, forcing the political and economic elite to acknowledge an injustice and perhaps act differently.

Nothing about that description applies to the NRA. The National Rifle Association has been so successful in maintaining lax gun regulations because of its highly effective lobbying arm. So far in 2015, for example, the gun lobby has spent $1,795,000 in Washington. Of course, polls reflect increasing opposition to gun control legislation: when the NRA can pour money into television ads, campaign strategies, and political lobbying machines, the message starts to take hold, and democracy is corrupted. We’ve seen the ramifications of that money already, since even the collective grief after Sandy Hook failed to result in a single federal law regulating gun sales or use, and we are sure to see the ramifications of that money in the upcoming campaign season as well. Thus, the event mistakenly positions the National Rifle Association as a justice-seeking grassroots social movement.

The National Rifle Association is not a social movement; it is a political lobby. Every day that we forget the NRA’s mission in order to learn from its political savvy, more innocent Americans are killed by guns, and we are even farther from the possibility of justice.


Talia Rothstein ’17 is a History and Literature and Latin American Studies concentrator in Leverett House

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