Race, Rights and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and Contemporary Gun Culture

Coming in Fall 2023

Race, Rights and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and Contemporary Gun Culture 

(The University of Chicago Press, 2023) 

Published September 2023
Hardcover 368 pages
ISBN-13 978-022682874


Race, Rights, and Rifles tells the story of how gun ownership in America became intertwined with an exclusionary ideology of citizenship that privileges White men as the “citizen-soldiers,” the rightful defenders of the nation. The book traces the history of the genesis and transmission of this ideology from the America Revolution, through America’s military institutions, to the National Rifle Association (NRA).  I also show how this worldview animates many White Americans today–even those beyond the NRA’s orbit—and encourages them to support violence against democratic institutions.

I call this belief system ascriptive martial republicanism because it combines two worldviews popular during the Revolution: martial republicanism and White male supremacy. The first ideology defined good citizenship in terms of one’s willingness to bear arms in defense of the country. The second denied the moral worth of women and African Americans, characterizing them as unsuitable for political membership—as voters or soldiers. Ascriptive martial republicanism recognized only White men as virtuous armed defenders of the nation and thus deserving of political rights. This worldview was etched in America’s military institutions and state constitutions than linked maleness, Whiteness, militia service, and voting rights. It was also transmitted through the educational system, art, and public memory, ensuring its long-term survival even in the face of challenges.  

The NRA was born out of the 19th century National Guards and remains a key transmitter of this exclusionary worldview into the 21st century. For almost a century, the association enjoyed a close working relationship with the federal government, exclusive subsidies, and a monopoly over the nation’s civilian shooting training programs. During this period, it was a government defender. The modern-day NRA, no longer benefiting from federal largesse and threatened by gun control, warns that elections do not suffice to temper corruption; only the threat of political violence can keep elected officials in check. Therefore, good citizens are those who own firearms and fight for gun rights. Although the group maintains a color-blind posture, its iconography and coded language tell a very different story, reinforcing the belief that the good citizen is the armed White man. 

Ascriptive republicanism is also prevalent among the White public. Using original survey data, I demonstrate that many White Americans understand citizenship in ascriptive martial republican terms.  I also show that people who embrace this ideology are more likely than those who reject it to value gun rights over voting rights, embrace antidemocratic norms, and justify political violence.

Table of Contents


Part I: Historical Foundations

  1. Republican Ideology in Early America 
  2. An Exclusive Vision of Virtue and Citizenship 
  3. Militias and the Institutionalization of Ascriptive Republicanism 
  4. Cultural Transmission 

Part II: The Origins and Worldview of the NRA

  1. The Emergence of the NRA
  2. An Organization of White Men
  3. Political Virtue 
  4. Political Corruption 
  5. The NRA’s Theory of Democracy

Part III: Ascriptive Republicanism in Contemporary White Public Opinion

  1. Ascriptive Republicanism and Gun Attitudes Today
  2. From Stand Your Ground to Stand Back and Stand By

Democratic Stability in Peril


Race, Rights and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and Contemporary Gun Culture earned a Starred Review from Kirkus!

An exploration of the foundations of America’s commitment to guns.

Filindra, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, argues that contemporary gun-rights advocacy, as expressed by the National Rifle Association and various militia groups, is most firmly rooted not in libertarian ideals but in two guiding, if sometimes masked, assumptions: that citizens’ armed readiness is a crucial element of political virtue and that white males are the only legitimate exemplars of patriotism. Drawing on a range of historical texts as well as original survey data, the author traces a lineage of arguments for individual gun ownership from the American Revolution to the present day. “White Americans developed an intersectional racialized and gendered theory of the Republic, which elevated White men alone as virtuous citizens,” writes the author. This is a deeply informed, persuasive book, offering a compelling overview of how Americans became militarized and how that militarization is increasing. […]

“Theoretically ambitious, empirically rich, and politically pertinent, Race, Rights and Rifles examines how guns relate to US citizenship. Reconstructing the political history of guns in the US and dissecting its ongoing impact on the present-day, Race, Rights and Rifles shows how ascriptive republicanism transforms the right to self-defense—a basic human impulse for survival—into a rallying point for political polarization and a justification for an investment in illiberal democracy.”

Jennifer Dawn Carlson | author of “Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy”

“Why are gun killings in the United States an everyday occurrence? Race, Rights, and Rifles blends intellectual and political history, an eye-opening account of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and contemporary public opinion data to provide compelling answers. Alexandra Filindra shows that the American Revolution fused white male gun ownership with ideals of republican civic virtue in ways that the NRA has long championed. Consequentially, this has led a shocking number of Americans to believe that they have a fundamental right to engage in vigilante violence—like invading the Capitol or shooting a Black teenager who mistakenly knocks on the wrong door.”

Rogers Smith | University of Pennsylvania

Volume 47, Issue 3

Special Issue: Immigration Policy Measurement
Pages: 493-848

August 2019

The goal of this special issue is to put the study of immigration policy at the center of critical analysis. Immigration policy is one of the most important issues in national and comparative politics—consequential in both the United States and internationally. As scholars attempt to account for its political salience, myriad policy designs, and a variety of policy effects, the topic has naturally surged in popularity among social scientists. This special issue of Policy Studies Journal takes stock of this prodigious research field, to identify consensus understandings of how scholars measure and examine policy in single-country and cross-country analysis.