Judd Ehrlich’s “The Price of Freedom” is an absorbing, disturbing, and scrupulously well-researched documentary that lays out the nuts and bolts of the National Rifle Association’s history (you could read 100 news stories about it and have no idea how the NRA evolved to what it became, a story that this movie nails). In the process, the film anatomizes all the ways that the NRA has exerted such a singular and powerful influence on American gun policy. You probably think I’m talking about the NRA’s relentless lobbying of Congress; its macho coziness with presidents like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump; its blackballing of political candidates who don’t have the right agenda; as well as the essential NRA ideology about what American gun law should consist of: no background checks, no training or permits, no restrictions on the buying and selling of assault weapons, no closing of the gun-show “loophole.” (Recommending that free handguns be given out at McDonald’s isn’t part of the NRA agenda, but you have to wonder if that isn’t far behind.)
The film covers all that stuff, and does it well. That said, we’ve heard most of it before, in the ongoing journalistic coverage of the gun debate (which is really a gun culture war), and in documentaries like “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” “Under the Gun,” and “Bowling for Columbine,” a film that came out 19 years ago and, as far as I’m concerned, still owns this topic. (I think it’s Michael Moore’s finest two hours.) Yet even as you’re considering the ways that the NRA has greased the wheels of power, flexed its muscles of influence, and stoked the public war, perhaps the key aspect of what the NRA has accomplished over the last half century is to create, sustain, and feed a mythology — one that’s become a kind of religion for gun owners. The “gun-rights” movement now has a cult-like purity and fervor, and that extends both to the policies it favors (no policy at all, really) and to why its adherents treat their guns as literal extensions of themselves.
In their minds, they’re trying to preserve “freedom”: the freedom to protect themselves, to be an individual, to be an American in the spirit that the Founding Fathers intended. They want to go back to “the way things were,” before the liberals started gumming up the works with their gun control.
But what “The Price of Freedom” captures is how that entire scenario was essentially made up. In the 19th century, the age of “the wild west,” America was thick with gun regulations. “The NRA wants you to believe a fantasy,” says Sen. Chris Murphy, “in which our Founding Fathers believed that there should be no regulation of firearms. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is absolutely clear that our Founding Fathers loved gun control.” The film goes back to the books to show us a mountain of gun regulations — in 1776 Delaware, the prohibition of carrying arms at election sites; in 1847 Louisiana, the restriction of firing weapons within city limits; in 1890 Oklahoma, a prohibition on the concealed carrying of firearms; in 1868 Kansas, a law preventing “dangerous people” from carrying weapons; in 1885 Illinois, the requirement of registration for deadly weapons; and on and on and on.
“From our very earliest days in the 1600s through the 20th century,” says the political scientist Robert Spitzer, “there were literally thousands of gun laws.” The NRA, founded in 1871, was never an anti-gun-law organization. It was devoted to marksmanship and training. So what changed? As the documentary shows us, the whole gun-culture debate didn’t start until the 1960s, in the wake of the assassinations (JKF, RFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr.) and also the first mass shooting, when Charles Whitman climbed atop the University of Texas tower in 1966 and shot and killed 15 people. In the ’60s, gun violence rises, and we see a clip of no less a Texan than LBJ saying, “I call upon the Congress, in the name of sanity, to give America the gun-control law America needs.”
It was Harlon Carter, the president of the NRA from 1965-67, who became the first voice of gun rights, defining the bayonet tip of the culture war. He put forth the idea that every gun-control measure was a violation of core American identity, individualism, and freedom. After Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the NRA actually came around to support the Gun Control Act of 1968. But Carter, who changed the spelling of his first name to avoid scrutiny for a murder he was convicted of when he was 17, had already lit the fuse, and he stormed back to retake the organization during its 1977 convention in Cincinnati. Carter and his cohorts ousted the old guard, and the new era of the NRA was born. The membership exploded by 300 percent, as it became a missionary organization devoted to elevating the Second Amendment into a mythic totem of gun-rights absolutism.
In the movie, the historian Yohuru Williams claims that the narrative the NRA has been promoting — men walking around with assault weapons as if they were “peacekeepers,” looking for villains to shoot — is one that has now taken root in America. It may well have been the tipping point of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, even as the narrative is rooted in nothing so much as the dreamworld of popular culture. In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first presidential candidate to be endorsed by the NRA, and that, in part, is because he incarnated the Hollywood image of the Old West lawman whose gun is the law. The typical gun-rights advocate today has one foot in the Old West, the other in the nihilistic landscape of the protect-and-revenge narrative that was put forth in the ’70s in “Death Wish” and a hundred other movies that followed its template.
In 1984, when Bernhard Goetz, wielding a gun he was carrying illegally, shot four Black teenagers who approached him with screwdrivers on a New York subway, it became a vigilante narrative as mythic as anything in a Bronson or Seagal film. He had, in effect, crossed through the looking glass; in hindsight, Goetz was the poster geek for “stand your ground” laws. Those laws have been a disaster, encouraging citizens to shoot their weapons as if they were judge, jury, and executioner, but the key thing to understand about the NRA revolution is that it’s a vicarious revolution: one put forth by people who walk around with guns slung over their shoulders in Wal-Mart as if they were swaggering through their own personal action film.
The NRA took that ethos right off the deep end when, four days after the Sandy Hook massacre, the organization’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, stood up at a press-conference podium and said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” That was a Full Bronson moment, a sign that not even the murder of children in a mass shooting could deter the NRA from pursuing its renegade ideal of unregulated gun “freedom.” The powerful message put forth by “The Price of Freedom” is that that ideal was never based on history, or reality; it was based on abandoning those things. And that’s why it must be stopped.