A week ago, a senseless and tragic shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, took the lives of 12 persons and wounded dozens. But instead of discussing what appears to be the gunman’s mental illness, the liberal mainstream media has spent most of its energy trying (to no avail) to use the incident to revive interest in gun control. This effort has utterly failed, with even President Obama refusing to obey the admonitions of some of his journalistic supporters to leverage the bloodshed for an attack on the National Rifle Association (NRA). This has only compounded their frustration, leading them to publish editorials like today’s New York Times jeremiad against the NRA, which rails about the reasons why “Candidates Cower on Gun Control.”

It is possible to make a reasonable argument in favor of some limits on ownership of particularly dangerous weapons though, as Rich Lowry pointed out in a smart opinion piece published on Politico, the gun control solutions favored by liberals would not have prevented alleged Colorado killer James Holmes from carrying out his crime. As Lowry points out, “Even scary looking guns formerly banned by Congress do not go on killing sprees on their own.” But the interesting point to be gleaned from the rehashing of the old debate about guns is not so much whether the NRA’s critics are right but the way they have come to demonize the organization. Leave aside for a moment the merits of their case about guns, and what comes across most clearly is an unwillingness to acknowledge that the NRA’s success is rooted in the nuts and bolts work of political organizing. Like the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis which cannot explain the enormous bipartisan popularity of the State of Israel by means other than a shadowy conspiracy of money and influence peddling, the NRA’s critics need to understand that it succeeds not by intimidation but because most Americans agree with it.

You don’t have to agree with the NRA on its opposition to the assault weapons ban to understand that, contrary to the Times and the numerous other liberal editorial writers and columnists who have sounded the same theme, that its actions are a function of democracy, not an attempt to subvert it. If candidates — even a liberal Democratic incumbent — are loath to take it on, that is not because they are cowards, but because they know the NRA represents a critical mass of American public opinion.

The arguments in favor of gun control are at best questionable (such laws don’t reduce crime) and often a function of a cultural prejudice against firearms. But what’s really wrong with most of what we hear from anti-gun forces is their attempt to delegitimize the NRA. The group’s four million members represent not so much a special interest but a vanguard of a broad sentiment that sees gun ownership as a valid constitutional right. You don’t have to agree with them (though the Supreme Court does when it confirmed in 2008 that the Second Amendment meant what it says when it talks of “the right to bear arms”), but you must respect their right to organize. The NRA’s ability to persuade legislators is, like that of other successful advocates such as AIPAC on behalf of Israel, a reflection of the fact that their views are popular.

If the debate on gun control is to continue — and given the consensus that exists among the public and Congress though not among liberal editorialists against such measures there seems no reason why it should — it should do so without the imprecations of the NRA. If liberals wish to defeat it, they must do so by the force of reason, not by demonizing a legitimate and broad-based activist group.

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