The Price of Freedom is a potent, clear-eyed, and disturbing look at how the National Rifle Association (NRA) came to dominate discussions of gun regulation in the United States by creating a false mythology around identity, individualism, patriotism, and America’s founding values. By equating guns with freedom, they have successfully equated gun regulation and gun safety with anti-American values.

As director Judd Ehrlich clearly demonstrates, this could not be further from the truth. Gun regulation had been widespread long before the country’s inception and remained so all the way through to the 20th century. Likewise the NRA, founded in 1871 as an association to promote marksmanship and sports shooting, had never been an anti-gun-law organisation. The gun-culture debate did not even start until the 1960s, in the wake of a string of political assassinations and the first mass shooting at the University of Texas.

It was not until the 1977 Revolt at the Cincinnati convention – which saw Harlon Carter and his followers oust the old guard – that the NRA as it is known today was born: an evangelist organisation that turned the Second Amendment into an emblem of gun-rights absolutism, and whose response to tragedy has been to double down on its pro-gun rhetoric.

Through meticulous research and interviews with a host of activists, scholars, survivors, and lawmakers as well as gun-rights campaigners (including X Gonzalez, former President Bill Clinton, Senator Chris Murphy, Representative Gabby Gifford, David Keene, and more), The Price of Freedom powerfully unpacks and debunks the myths, manipulation tactics and fear mongering deployed by the NRA to foster its culture war.

Following its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Outtake spoke with The Price of Freedom’s Judd Ehrlich about the history of the National Rifle Association, its influence and blatant propaganda, the current political landscape, and the road to change.

What inspired you to examine the issue of gun regulation?

Judd Ehrlich: This began with a question: How did we get to this place in America where gun violence is at epidemic proportions. Guns are in the hands of more people than in any other nation, and we have no gun laws to really speak of on the federal level. How can this happen, especially when you consider that gun owners and non-gun owners alike do agree on common sense laws and regulations around guns? And considering that this country not only has a history of gun culture, but that it has a history of gun regulation.

When you take all these things together, you have to ask, how did this happen? And all roads seem to lead back to the National Rifle Association and back to the very disturbing fact that it didn’t have to be this way. Things could have been very different in this country, had the NRA stayed true to its founding mission – and what it had been doing for a century – which was to care about shooting sports, accuracy with a firearm, safety with a firearm, conservation, hunting… These things are positive aspects of gun culture. But the NRA radically changed in what’s referred to as the Cincinnati Revolt in 1977, and that was really the founding of the modern NRA.

It’s strange that it’s a relatively recent development and yet, I would assume most people don’t remember what the NRA was prior to ’77. Why was it important for you to delve into the NRA’s history, and what are your hopes in highlighting their original goals?

Judd Ehrlich: I think the NRA doesn’t want you to know about the realities of American history, they don’t want you to know about the realities of their own history. The National Rifle Association has not always been about this radical interpretation of the Second Amendment; they have not always been about lobbying against any common-sense gun regulation. This is not their history, it’s also not the history of America.

We have a long history in this country of gun laws and gun regulations. And some of that, to be honest, is racist. It’s about keeping guns and firearms in the hands of certain people, namely white males, and keeping them out of the hands – from the very beginning – of Native Americans, and then free Blacks. So there is a history of that kind of gun control, but there’s also a history of laws and regulations of every single kind, which we talk about in the film, that was certainly around since the founding of this country.

12/7/1981 President Reagan being presented a handmade classic flintlock muzzle loading rifle in the Oval Office by Harlon Carter in documentary The Price of Freedom by Judd Ehrlich
1981 President Reagan being presented a rifle by Harlon Carter in the Oval Office

The NRA doesn’t want you to know that. They want you to think that this country was about unregulated ownership of firearms from its founding. That somehow, the independence that we value in this country is tied to a firearm. And again, these are really recent inventions, so my hope is that by unpacking this history and shedding light on it, that people – gun owners and non-gun owners, Republicans and Democrats – look at this issue from a different perspective. That if we care about our kids being safe and being able to go to school, if we care about gun violence in our neighbourhoods, if we care about death by guns from suicide, if we care about any of these issues, then we need to start understanding how we got here, and we need to make this an issue that we all care about and fight for.

You end The Price of Freedom with quite a threatening message from David Keene, in which he says something along the lines of, ‘even if the NRA is not around, these ideas will continue’. Even as you’re reframing the debate and educating people on the origins of these myths, do you not think that these ideas are perhaps too ingrained already in American culture for the damage to be reversed?

Judd Ehrlich: The answer is, I don’t know. I’m just a filmmaker [laughs]. The reality is that we have to be hopeful, and I get hope from the survivors, those who say that we have to keep fighting because, what choice do we have? But you’re right to point that out, and it was really important for me to include that warning from David Keene in the film because, not only does he say that there have been times in our history when people have counted out the National Rifle Association and were proven wrong – and that’s true, there’s been a lot of scandals in the history of the NRA when people have said, “this is the final nail in the coffin” and then the NRA  survived. But what’s also critical is that even if the NRA were to go away tomorrow, their ideas have become so saturated in the American populace that their ideas will remain. We know this from the election of our last president in this country, for example.

America has a deeper problem than the NRA, because the NRA unleashed this monster: they were able to pick up on a lot of very powerful strains of the American psyche and exploit that, and exploit fear, over decades. And now we’re at a point where we have to say, “no more”, whether it’s the NRA or gun rights activists of any stripe. But as we say at the end of The Price of Freedom, what gives me hope is looking at the 2018 midterm elections, when gun reform activists decided to take a page out of the NRA handbook. The NRA had made gun rights a number one voting issue for decades, so people across the country voted for candidates who were running on an explicit gun reform and gun safety platform. And it worked! We have to continue applying that kind of pressure.

You mention how the NRA has been repeatedly underestimated throughout its history. And an important example of that, which this documentary explores, is the midterm elections under President Bill Clinton. [The 1994 federal assault weapons ban devastated more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the ’94 midterms, even costing then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley his seat in Congress.] Admittedly, he had been quite naïve about the issue and suffered an abrupt wakeup call. What was your biggest takeaway from your interview with him, and how did he reflect on those events some 25 years later?

Judd Ehrlich: He was incredibly honest about it and as you said, he realised that he was naïve. As a kid from Arkansas, a southern state that very much believes in gun culture and in which he grew up hunting and with guns… he believes in the right to self-protection, and he believes in the Second Amendment. And he thought that because of where he was coming from, he could speak to that segment of America. But the NRA came after him and, as it was really apparent in those 94 midterms, it absolutely changed the direction of this country.  

I remember very well when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, and the Contract with America – when that came in in 1994, it completely changed the Clinton agenda. And the NRA was a big part of that defeat. And President Clinton explained that what he’d learned from that was that opinion polls don’t matter. He had broad public support for both of his major initiatives, the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill going in, and he got them passed. And he thought that with that broad public support, the midterms would be okay and those people in office would be safe. But he was wrong, because it doesn’t matter how people answer in an opinion poll; it doesn’t matter what you say you believe in if you don’t go out and vote.

But we learn, as political scientist Robert Spitzer says in the film, the story of the NRA is really a story where a small but vocal minority rules the day over a large, but largely apathetic majority. And that has become the modus operandi of the National Rifle Association. In order to combat that, people on the other side have to speak up and rise up.

Why was it important for you to interview David Keene [President of the NRA 2011-2013] and allow him to make his arguments on the issue?

Judd Ehrlich: It was really critical to have somebody from the National Rifle Association state their case. I wanted to give them space to really make a full-throated defence of their position. Audiences are smart, they can make their own decisions; and I’m not saying that everyone will walk away feeling the same way after watching The Price of Freedom. But people should be able to hear both sides.

Ex NRA President David Keene interview in documentary The Price of Freedom by director Judd Ehrlich
David Keene in The Price of Freedom

That’s not to say that when somebody like David Keene says something that is factually inaccurate, that we won’t have other people correct him on that. But I’m very grateful to Mr Keene for sitting with me as long as he did and being able to give his defence of his beliefs and the National Rifle associations’ beliefs, and to really talk about the way that they have operated over these decades.

It’s all the more powerful for him to say these things in real time, and to then have experts – and history itself – debunk and deconstruct those arguments. Was there anyone you wanted to interview for The Price of Freedom that declined or never got back to you, that you wish would have been involved?

Judd Ehrlich: The person that comes to mind is Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association. We didn’t hear back on that one, but we weren’t surprised; he and others in the NRA are notoriously secretive and give very few press appearances or interviews. As I said though, I was pleasantly surprised and grateful that David Keene did give us a lot of time and was willing to engage in a conversation on these issues.

I think that we as Americans need to be willing to engage in conversation if we want to move forward. We know that we live in a very polarised time in this country, and around the world, and we have to be willing to talk to each other. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree or even find common ground, but it’s the first step.

Would you say that The Price of Freedom ’s intended audience is the people who already believe in increased gun control, but who have perhaps lost hope that the issue could ever be resolved?

Judd Ehrlich: The people who believe in increased gun reform and those who believe in increased gun safety in this country, are 80 or 90% of Americans. It’s another myth of the NRA that this country is divided down the middle on this issue, or this idea of the slippery slope in which any gun regulation is just one step away from confiscating all guns and a repeal of the Second Amendment. It’s just not the case. So my intended audience for this film is every American who cares about gun safety and cares about the future of this country.

The Price of Freedom is out now in US theatres. UK release date TBA.