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nra and hezbollah

Hezbollah and the Second Amendment

They have more in common than you think.

Words: Zuri Linetsky
Pictures: Kyle Johnson

For a week every February and September, global fashion leaders descend on New York’s Fashion Week where they share next season’s clothing lines with the world. During 2019’s Fashion Week, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its first-ever Concealed Carry Fashion Show at the Ft. Worth, Texas convention center. There, models walked the runway showing off the latest haute couture clothing designed for Americans unwilling to leave the house without being armed to the teeth, but invisibly so. Around the same time, some 7,000 miles away, tourists from around the world surveyed the goods and wares of another pro-gun group at the Mleeta Tourist Landmark of Resistance in Lebanon: the Hezbollah-run war museum memorializing the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000.

Few might suspect that the NRA and Hezbollah — groups divided by yawning chasms of culture, geography, religion, and politics — could have anything in common. Most notably, while the NRA has arguably enabled 373 mass shootings in 2019, it does not kill people — unlike Hezbollah, which is a deadly international terrorist group. Nonetheless, these organizations share several key similarities. First, both are wedded to the constitutional structures of their respective countries as a result of legal wrangling and textual interpretation. Second, the NRA and Hezbollah are both actively involved in the domestic politics of their respective countries by mobilizing supporters around elections through advocacy as well as the provision of money and social services. Finally, both are powerful international actors: the former affecting gun policy internationally, and the latter playing a major role throughout the Middle East, Latin America, and the United States.

The similarities between the NRA, US gun laws, and Hezbollah shed light on solutions to limiting the power of these organizations in both countries. As demonstrated by a recent non-binding motion passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declaring the NRA a domestic terrorist organization, the key is to encourage grassroots activism and locally-driven lawmaking. As local communities redefine their relationship with gun laws, the gun lobby, and Hezbollah — as is occurring right now in protests sweeping through Lebanon — it will necessarily obligate state and national leaders to either follow suit or explain how their opposition to citizen’s demands jives with their position as those community’s elected representatives.


To begin, guns, the NRA, and Hezbollah are protected by the basic legal frameworks of their respective countries. For both groups, community protection was critical to ensuring their prominent role in national life.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution is concise: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Prior to the amendment’s passage, there was an active debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists about establishing a standing professional military that could disarm local militias. The concern of the Anti-Federalists was that disarming militias would remove states’ principal means of self-defense (against a potentially tyrannical central government) and challenge basic concepts of self-government. There may also have been a concern from some slave-holding Framers of the Constitution that Congress might use its new powers to disarm militias that were vital for maintaining the slave system and preventing slave revolts. Throughout the debate over the amendment, there was no mention of individual gun ownership for protection or sport – the focus was on ensuring communal security.

The first Supreme Court decision relevant to the Second Amendment came in the form of the 1939 United States v. Miller ruling, in which the Court held that through the National Firearms Act (1934), Congress could regulate the interstate sale of short-barrel shotguns that were deemed unrelated to maintaining a well-regulated militia. The NRA, founded in 1871 by Union officers who were perturbed by the poor marksmanship of rank and file troops and wanted to sponsor shooting and training competitions, supported the Miller ruling.

“For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation,” wrote the retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. Yet, in 2008, the United States Supreme Court reinterpreted the Second Amendment, moving from the longstanding collective-rights approach to an individual-rights interpretation. In District of Columbia vs. Heller, the Supreme Court guaranteed an individual’s right to own a gun. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, did this by parsing the language of the amendment into a prefatory clause: “militia,” and an operative clause: “the right of the people to keep and bear.” He included some interpretation of existing legal texts, and then pointed out that the prefatory clause did not limit or expand the operative clause. This decision (which arguably resulted from 40 years of NRA advocacy), entrenched guns in the day-to-day lives of Americans across the nation more than any other, even in cities like DC and Chicago, which worked to limit gun ownership inside city limits. This decision also contributed to manic but legal gun culture that is less community safety oriented and more focused on subjugating the community to the whims of the individual.

Hezbollah (literally, The Party of God), is a Shia political party and para-military group in Lebanon, founded during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) in response to three major issues: the historic marginalization of the Shia community, the 1982 Israeli invasion, and the encouragement of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran. Hezbollah, much like the Second Amendment, was not written into Lebanon’s original 1926 Constitution, it was instead empowered and legalized by a critical reinterpretation of the 1989 amendment to the constitution that ended the Civil War.

The Lebanese Civil War was driven by dissatisfaction with the basic institutional structure of the Lebanese state — as articulated by the 1926 Constitution and the 1946 National Pact. Urbanization and demographic changes after World War II eroded the power of the Maronite Christian-Sunni leadership consensus, and pushed formerly marginalized populations (the rapidly growing Shia community) into close contact with dominant groups (Sunnis and Christians), fostering inter-confessional group tensions. These tensions were exacerbated by the presence of Palestinian refugees and militant groups (including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO) living and operating out of Lebanon.

Israel entered the chaos of Lebanese Civil War in 1982 only to become the proximate cause for Hezbollah’s creation. The Israelis were initially even welcomed with rice and flowers because they entered Lebanon to evict the PLO from Southern Lebanon and provide a measure of stability. To this end, Israel declared it was not at war with the Lebanese state. Despite Israeli efforts to mitigate blowback against their military presence, elements of what would eventually become Hezbollah, aided by training and financial support from post-Revolutionary Iran, attacked IDF forces — including two suicide bombings of IDF headquarters in the southern city of Tyre in 1982 and 1983. Its attacks continued, notably with the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, where two attackers killed 305 people, including 241 American and 58 French service members as well as six civilians. In 1985, due to Hezbollah’s expanding military proficiency and ferocity, Israel withdrew to the South Lebanon Security Belt until 2000, when it finally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon.

The similarities don’t end with protected status under their respective countries’ constitutions. Hezbollah and the NRA both drive domestic policymaking by mobilizing voters and financial resources to achieve their political objectives.

The Lebanese Civil War ended with the 1989 Taif Accord. The Agreement had four major facets: it rearranged political power, set out the goal of abolishing sect-based politics (over an undefined period), made Syria the de facto guardian of Lebanese politics, and set out an agenda for disarming all national and non-national militias. Despite this call for disarming militias, a section of the Accord called for: “Taking all the steps necessary to liberate all Lebanese territories from the Israeli occupation.” According to Nicholas Blanford, the combination of Taif’s stipulation that the Lebanese state liberate all Lebanese territory as well as the Party of God’s pragmatic relationships with Syria and Iran allowed the group to avoid disarming after the agreement. Blandford notes that due to these facts: “Hezbollah was classified as an officially sanctioned resistance against the Israeli occupation.” Hezbollah — like gun rights in the US — was created to protect (Shia) communities in southern Lebanon in wartime, and was then legalized and legitimized by the post-civil war Lebanese constitution.


The similarities don’t end with protected status under their respective countries’ constitutions. Hezbollah and the NRA both drive domestic policymaking by mobilizing voters and financial resources to achieve their political objectives.

The NRA has a national membership of some five million people and is the de facto lobbying group for the gun industry in the United States. The money the NRA can mobilize from these organizations has a direct affect on American policy through local and national elections. Specifically, the NRA spent more than $203 million dollars on various political activities from 1998 to 2018 — mostly advocating to elect or defeat certain candidates based on their views of gun rights. The NRA spent $54.4 million to help elect (through advertising and direct support) President Trump and six other Republican candidates running in the 2016 election cycle.

Outside of affecting election outcomes, the NRA has fundamentally altered the nature of gun ownership across the United States. As discussed above, the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Heller was likely influenced by NRA lobbying. More recently, the NRA has successfully lobbied for the passage of so-called: “Permitless Carry” bills in Kentucky, South Dakota, and Oklahoma — thereby allowing residents to carry concealed firearms without any type of license or training. With NRA support, twenty-six states have passed laws since 2009 expanding the types of places where concealed weapons can be carried to include bars and churches, colleges classrooms and government buildings, in some cases without permits. Unsurprisingly, lawmakers in these states received high grades from gun rights groups to ensure gun enthusiasts know who to vote for.

Hezbollah is somewhat different than gun rights groups because after the Taif Accord, its political wing formally entered Lebanese politics. Therefore, it has a direct impact on Lebanese politics. Since 1992 — the first election following the end of the Lebanese Civil War — Hezbollah party members have slowly increased their share of seats in Lebanon’s parliament, and its membership in a multiparty coalition has gained them even greater domestic political clout over time.

Hezbollah, like the NRA, derives its political power from the effective use its economic resources to marshal support for its preferred elected officials. Specifically, Hezbollah has directed large amounts of its financial resources into becoming the principal provider of social services in large swaths of Lebanon. Hezbollah has its own construction company for building and rebuilding southern Lebanon, it provides fresh water, it runs children’s sports clubs, provides seed money to small businesses, and health insurance to individuals; it provides medical care, and it provides education and jobs. It does this because in Lebanon’s confessional system, voters indicate that they prioritize social service provision by their elected officials when making their voting decisions.

The impact of Hezbollah’s domestic social work has been profound. In 2018, Hezbollah and its political allies in the March 8 Alliance (including Hezbollah as well as other Shia and Christian political parties) won a simple majority of seats in Parliament. Hezbollah itself and its allied appointees in the March 8 Alliance hold 10 seats in the current Lebanese cabinet, including the Foreign and Health Ministries.


Both Hezbollah and the NRA have international portfolios as well — but this is where the two groups begin to diverge. Through the first two decades of the twenty-first century, American gun lobbyists have actively spread the American gospel of absolute gun freedoms throughout the globe. This is a key NRA interest because it’s good for US arms manufacturers if citizens of other countries find it easier to buy American-made guns. Also, when other countries have less restrictive gun laws, it’s a boon to the NRA’s message of unrestrained gun-toting in the USA: other countries are giving unfettered access to guns to their citizens, so should America! Concomitantly, Hezbollah has worked to achieve its own pernicious interests around the world, largely through the narcotics trade. Ultimately, both the NRA’s and Hezbollah’s international operations have a common aim: expanding organization reach.

The NRA’s international lobbying for unfettered access to all manner of military-grade armaments began in 1996, when it won formal non-governmental organization (NGO) status at the United Nations. The NRA also helped found the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, which is an international lobbying body made up of firearm groups and gun manufacturers from around the globe. The World Forum is also a recognized UN NGO, with the NRA informing its messaging.

Beyond the UN, the NRA has played a pivotal role in fundamentally undermining gun regulation in one of the most gun-violence affected country in the world — Brazil. In October 2005, Brazilians voted in a national referendum on a ban of commercial arms sales to civilians (not police, private security, or the military) including firearms and bullets. Early in the campaign to ban arms sales, approximately 70 percent of Brazilian voters supported the ban. This figure dropped to 45 percent only a week before the historic referendum. Through NRA lobbying and support to local Brazilin gun advocacy groups, the ban was rejected by a resounding 2 to 1 margin.

The NRA has tried to expand its reach in Australia as well. Recently published undercover investigative reporting revealed that Australia’s far-right One Nation party sought advice on rhetorical tools for responding to mass shootings, guidance on how to loosen local gun laws, as well as an estimated $20 million from the NRA to try to change public perceptions of gun restrictions.

The most recent example of the NRA’s international lobbying effort was President Trump’s announcement, during an April 26, 2019 NRA address, that he would withdraw the United States from the Arms Trade Treaty because it infringed on American sovereignty. Interestingly, this treaty, which was designed to regulate the international trade of conventional arms in order to reduce the scale of the illicit arms trade, would have increased the number of international gun-trading regulations to the level of laws governing the trade of bananas.

While the NRA’s international work is reasonably described as legal but irresponsible and dangerous, Hezbollah’s international activities are by any definition illegal, irresponsible and deadly. The Party of God is heavily invested in the international arms and the narcotics trades in Latin America. In the tri-border area between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, a relatively lawless/ungoverned region of South America, the RAND corporation estimated that Hezbollah raises nearly $20 million per year. Hezbollah has also been linked to a $1.2 billion money-laundering scheme in Paraguay. Significant portions of Hezbollah’s illicit income from Latin America are also laundered through the American financial system. Lebanese men who claimed to be members of The Party of God were arrested in Nigeria — one of the men had a large arms cache in his home — they were reportedly preparing to conduct militant operations against Israeli and Western interests there. Hezbollah is also extorting money from Lebanese expatriate merchants involved in the West African diamond trade.


The NRA and Hezbollah are similar in a number of ways, despite the fact that only Hezbollah actually “pulls the trigger.” These similarities highlight the fact that Hezbollah, the NRA, and American gun laws are dependent on community support. Consequently, addressing the challenges posed by Hezbollah, American gun laws, and the NRA, requires changes in community decisionmaking.

Simply put, the Lebanese state does not have the power — or, arguably, the will — to act against Hezbollah alone. Hezbollah is too strong and too popular. Also, no external force has demonstrated the military or political capability necessary for dislodging Hezbollah. But, this does not mean Hezbollah is invulnerable to popular Shia sentiment. Independent grassroots anti-sectarian organizations are currently gaining popularity throughout Lebanon.

Similarly, a bottom-up approach is critical for counteracting the power of the NRA and gun laws in the US. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors’ motion to label the NRA a domestic terror organization is instructive. The motion noted that the NRA spreads misinformation and propaganda with the goal of deceiving the public, and that through its advocacy, it has helped arm domestic terrorists. These ideas have significant grassroots support. A September 5, 2019 YouGov poll of 1383 American adults found that 43% of respondents believe declaring the NRA a Domestic Terrorist Organization is mostly or completely accurate. Moreover, broad-based popular support across the political spectrum exists for more regulation, in terms of expanded background checks and so-called: “red-flag” laws. Recent scientific research has concluded that places with more guns have more gun deaths, and there are even increasing public calls to repeal and replace the Second Amendment — even though this may be, at the moment, unlikely.

Other cities choosing to list the NRA as a domestic terror organization could help further curtail its capacity to evangelize for unregulated access to guns, because such a move would likely inhibit the NRA’s ability to spread its creed of increased public safety through wider and less regulated gun ownership. Specifically, this could preclude the NRA from using its money to influence electoral outcomes in the US and abroad. It may also allow state legislators who are afraid of NRA political contributions to work toward passing new state-level gun laws, maybe (eventually) pushing Congressional leaders to push for repealing and replacing the Second Amendment. It’s also reasonable to hope that this type of bottom-up lawmaking might influence a change in the NRA’s NGO status at the United Nations.

It might have an international impact, as well. As an international development practitioner, I spend roughly 20 weeks a year in developing countries — including Moldova, Haiti, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan. I am continually surprised by how much events in the US influence the ways in which people in the countries I visit think about the world and the day-to-day governance of their own countries. People I interact with recount their favorite American fashion, music, and books, and also tell me how American political discourse and the choices of US leaders matter to them, at least indirectly. If the US willingly redesigned its legal systems to preclude the activities of the NRA and this led to a decrease in gun violence, this could have global implications on gun usage, sales, and even local willingness to engage with non-state actors. Addressing gun violence and the gun lobby in the US might realistically help inspire change in a place as far away and as different as Lebanon.

Zuri Linetsky


Zuri Linetsky (@ZuriLinetsky) is a Truman Project National Security Fellow, and a nonresident fellow at the Global Policy Center at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.


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