On Wednesday night, police officers shot and killed reportedly legal gun owner Philando Castile — and although the details remain unclear, it seems the officers may have panicked and shot Castile to death when Castile reached for his driver’s license, after disclosing he had a gun.
This would seem like a standard case for the National Rifle Association: A legal gun owner was shot for doing everything you’re supposed to do — reportedly getting his concealed carry permit and telling an officer during a traffic stop that a gun was present in the car.
Surely enough, the NRA did comment on the shooting on Friday afternoon, calling for a thorough investigation into the shooting:
But the NRA’s official position until this statement was "no comment" — a sign that the organization was resistant to comment. And the NRA has a history of avoiding comments on police shootings in general. Why?
There are two big possible explanations. One, commenting — and perhaps criticizing the police — potentially betrays the NRA’s alliance with the cops. Two, it goes against the white identity politics that the NRA has long pandered to.
1) The NRA and police are uneasy allies
The NRA has an uneasy alliance with police. Both police unions and the NRA are conservative groups, and many police officers are also gun owners and NRA members. The NRA, then, has an interest in not upsetting police — especially since the facts of the shooting remain unclear due to the lack of video of the shooting itself.
"Can you imagine growing up in a country where everyone from movie stars to the president tells you to be suspicious of police officers?" Chris Cox, the group’s chief lobbyist, said at the NRA’s annual meeting. "Everything we’ve always known to be good and right and true has been twisted, perverted, and repackaged to our kids as wrong, backwards, and abnormal."
The NRA, for instance, has consistently decried criticisms of police officers by the Black Lives Matter movement. And the organization quickly released a statement following the Dallas shooting of multiple police officers, even after it didn’t comment on police shootings:
For the NRA, then, anything that could potentially criticize the police is seen as risky. So they historically rarely comment on cases in which even a legal gun owner is killed by police — making their comment on the Castile shooting a rare exception.
2) The connection between white identity and guns
There’s another explanation: Castile was black, and gun ownership in America — down to the NRA’s messaging — was historically built on a sense of white identity.
The link between white identity and gun ownership has been shown by researchers: A 2015 study, published in the journal Political Behavior, looked at survey data going back to the 1990s, finding a strong correlation between opposition to gun control and levels of racial resentment.
But the results only found a correlation, so the researchers dug deeper. They asked nearly 1,200 white participants a series of questions online about gun laws. But one half of the group first looked at pictures of white and black people from an implicit association test — to make them think about race — while the other half did not.
The researchers found that white participants who were primed by the pictures were more likely to oppose gun control than white participants who didn't see the images. What's more, primed participants who reported higher levels of racial resentment were even more likely to oppose gun control than primed participants who reported lower levels of racial resentment.
The researchers concluded that there is likely a causal connection between racial resentment and opposition to gun control.
What explains this? Alexandra Filindra, one of the researchers, previously told me that the most likely explanation is a link between white identity and gun ownership.
"This is an identity response, a psychological response, an implicit way of showing moral superiority and of expressing this resentment in a symbolic way that doesn't get you into trouble in a sense," Filindra argued. "You can maintain a perception for yourself — that you support racial equality — but at the same time show that you're white, your positive feelings toward your white group, and your negative feelings toward African Americans. So it's essentially an expression of in-group identity and out-group bias in a symbolic way."
The research in this area is still early, so it will need more studies in the future to know just how strong of a connection this is. Filindra also cautioned that this is only one factor among many for why people support or oppose gun control. And she said the results don't mean that every gun owner is a racist or that every racist is a gun owner.
But the results are telling. In the Castile case, the link between race and guns may not be the only reason the NRA was quiet for so long, but it’s a very likely reason.