The National Rifle Association as Thousands of Spider Monkeys, Not an 800-Pound Gorilla

Chapter 3 of Jennifer Carlson’s book on legal gun carriers in Michigan explores the role of National Rifle Association trainers and training courses in the construction and dissemination of the ideal of armed citizenship she calls the “citizen-protector.”

Put briefly, the “citizen-protector” accepts the responsibility of using lethal force in defense of innocent life as a moral duty. Like members of the military and sworn law enforcement officers have long done, citizen-protectors recognize that even if they do not ever use their guns in a defensive situation, they are still putting themselves on a different, higher moral plane (p. 66).

Therefore, a concealed carry permit is “not just a legal document indicating one’s lawful capacity to carry, but also a certificate of one’s moral character” (p. 74).

Carlson notes that those she calls “citizen-protectors” many in gun culture call “sheepdogs.”


The NRA as a Service Organization

In addition to a nuanced understanding of gun carriers, Carlson also offers a more nuanced picture of the NRA than most sociologists. She argues that the excessive focus on (and even caricature of) the NRA as an 800-pound political gorilla wreaking havoc on legislative decision-making in Washington obscures a significant reality known to and experienced by those who participate in gun culture: the 1976 1977 “revolt in Cincinnati” notwithstanding, the NRA remains in large part a service organization.


“Service activities like hunting courses, competitive shooting events, and self-defense training,” Carlson observes, “continue to comprise much of the NRA’s organizational focus” (p. 63). Just on the training side of the NRA operation, there are “some eighty thousand NRA-certified firearms instructors who train around 750,000 Americans a year” (p. 60).

Indeed, for all of the talk about gun safety on the part of gun control organizations, it is the NRA that most promotes gun safety on the ground, not only through the Eddie Eagle program, but also by its pioneering hunter safety training programs; its first steps, basic firearms, and home firearm safety courses; and by certifying ranges and range safety officers.

Concealed carry is particularly interesting because it exists at the nexus of the NRA’s political and service work. The NRA helps to pass carry laws and then plays a central role in certifying instructors for and offering courses that fulfill the training requirements for those laws (p. 63).

Here, the NRA transitions from being a service organization into a quasi-regulatory agency.

NRA Natl Firearms Museum Nov13 (2)

The NRA as a Quasi-Regulatory Agency

This is one of the most profound insights I took from Carlson’s book: due to its centrality in certifying instructors who offer NRA-certified training courses, the National Rifle Association effectively becomes a quasi-regulatory agency governing an aspect of concealed carry in the United States.

According to Wikipedia, “A regulatory agency (also regulatory authority, regulatory body or regulator) is a public authority or government agency responsible for exercising autonomous authority over some area of human activity in a regulatory or supervisory capacity.”

The modifier “quasi” is used here in recognition of the fact that the NRA is not a public authority or government agency.

Carlson notes that, “with rare exception, it was NRA-certified instructors who provided Michigan residents with the training certification necessary to apply for their concealed carry licenses. NRA-certified instructors were the gatekeepers of gun carry” (p. 59). Moreover, it was NRA courses that were required to obtain a concealed-pistol license in Michigan.

Although I have not seen the underlying data supporting this claim, according to Carlson, “Not all states explicitly require NRA training, but in well over half of shall-issue states, licensing guidelines are stated in such a way as to de jure or de facto require NRA courses and/or courses run by NRA-certified instructors” (p. 64).

NRA Courses Foster Citizen-Protectors

As a quasi-regulatory agency, the NRA is in a unique and powerful position to influence (though not determine) what is taught in concealed carry classes. Because NRA-certified instructors are not employed by the NRA, there can be variation in what they teach, even in an NRA-certified course like “Personal Protection in the Home” which many in Michigan take to satisfy their concealed pistol license training requirement. But in her observations, instructors tended to stick fairly closely to the NRA curriculum.

Carlson also observed that these NRA courses focused a lot on the moral and legal dimensions of gun carry, and less on “hands-on firearms skills applicable to self-defense encounters.” She continues, “Rather than prioritizing hands-on defensive training, these courses teach gun carriers that they are a particular kind of person—a law-abiding person willing to use lethal force to protect innocent life if faced with a violent threat. . . . In this way, the NRA . . . shapes new norms and expectations of citizenship. I argue that NRA courses encourage gun carriers to be ‘citizen-protectors,’ marked by their willingness to take criminal life in order to save innocent life” (p. 61).

Consequently, these laws provide the NRA with “a critical space in which to shape gun culture from the ground up” (p. 64) and “a space in which to shape a moral politics of life and death” (p. 65).

It is this reality of the NRA — as a service organization and quasi-regulatory agency shaping people’s understandings of guns at the everyday level – that needs to be taken much more seriously in understanding the organization’s power in American politics. Rather than thinking of the NRA as an 800-pound gorilla in Washington, think of it as thousands of spider monkeys living quite happily in communities in every part of these United States.

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  1. Of the millions of people who ‘carry’ I wonder how many of them think of themselves as the sheepdogs. In the ’60s when I was growing up we heard the term ‘ego trip’. Perhaps I should have said how many people who carry are on an ego trip thinking they are going to protect the helpless sheep with their magical GUN (a delusion?). I really do not know how big the number is. That sounds like an area for more research if it is possible to do it. Another part of this is if someone who carries is planning to be the protector of anyone who is not a part of his/her immediate flock. Finally, how does the idea of being a vigilante fit in with the citizen-protector idea? I cannot remember if Carlson talked about that or not.


  2. I have not gone through a CC course but I have several friends who have. The thing they tended to take away was “The legal system can really f*** me if I use my gun. My life can be ruined even if I’m acquitted of improper use.” It’s also a fear I see a lot when observing gun forums.
    It would be good to see what the curriculum says about protecting non-family members. It would also be interesting to do a pre and post class survey with questions along the lines of “I would get involved in a dispute between…”.


    • Far from “shoot first and ask questions later,” every gun class I have attended (not to mention books/articles read, TV shows watched, radio/podcasts listened to) emphasizes avoidance at all costs and shooting only when other options have been exhausted. Only, as Massad Ayoob has long said, “in the gravest extreme.”


  3. […] With the rise of Gun Culture 2.0 has come a massive influx of civilian firearms trainers who teach concealed carry courses or National Rifle Association basic pistol courses or both. Being an NRA-certified instructor is so often a prerequisite for teaching state-required concealed carry courses, and NRA basic pistol courses are so often accepted as fulfilling state-mandated concealed carry training requirements, that Jennifer Carlson has characterized the NRA as a “quasi-regulatory agency.” […]


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