The National Rifle Association’s black-carpeted booth was packed last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Just days earlier, a school shooter in Parkland, Florida had killed seventeen people.
Khaki-wearing college students and denim jacket-clad retirees gathered under prominent photos of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and CEO Wayne LaPierre. Hanging T-shirts proclaimed “NRA: Freedom’s safest place.” The bank of laptops flanked by credit card machines in the new member signup area was particularly busy. Lines formed of people waiting to sign up, some peeling bills out of their wallets to pay the special $20 annual fee, a 50% discount on the regular rate.
Asked why they were joining the powerful gun lobby, some first-time members said they felt the NRA had been unfairly maligned after the Florida shooting. Did it matter that companies were cancelling special discounts for NRA members, in the wake of public outrage over the Florida shooting? “No,” answered Linda Petrou and Mary Fleming, two new members from North Carolina, with a laugh. “We don’t even know what the benefits are,” Fleming said.
Overall, NRA members make up only 1.5% of the US population. In fact, 80% of American gun owners are not NRA members. Yet the organization wields an outsized influence in the US debate over gun control, and has significantly shaped the US gun laws, through an aggressive attack mentality, sophisticated marketing, relentless political lobbying and big money.
On Feb. 28, Donald Trump made an unexpected public push for “comprehensive” gun safety laws, and mocked Congress members for being “petrified” of the NRA. But as a huge recipient of NRA cash in the 2016 election, astride a White House ricocheting from one crisis to another, it’s unclear that he can be any more effective than past presidents at changing the equation.
The NRA quickly dismissed Trump’s push as a publicity stunt. While the “meeting made for great TV, the gun-control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe,” NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker said in an email. “Instead of punishing law-abiding gun owners for the acts of a deranged lunatic our leaders should pass meaningful proposals that would prevent the dangerously mentally ill from accessing firearms and actually prevent future tragedies.”
Late on March 2, NRA lobbyist Chris Cox bragged on Twitter about a “great meeting” with Trump in the White House. Trump, he said, doesn’t want gun control. “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!,” Trump himself tweeted.
The US is the deadliest developed country in the world, when it comes to firearm deaths.
From the outside, it might look like the US is evenly divided between people rallying behind the NRA and its critics. But it’s not a 50/50 split. Despite the abundance of real and fictional guns in American culture, nearly 70% of US households don’t own any gun at all, and most gun owners say new laws to make America safer could be passed without taking away their rights.
Far fewer Americans own guns than they did in the late 1970s, according to a University of Chicago project that’s been grilling Americans about all aspects of their lives for over four decades.
The overall number of guns have increased, though, indicating that the minority of households that do own guns are buying more and more.
Even before the massacre in Parkland, Florida, 60% of Americans supported stronger gun laws. Most answered yes when asked whether greater gun control could be enacted without violating their right to bear arms—including most of those in gun-owning households.
Since the Florida shooting, overall approval for stronger gun laws has risen slightly, to 66%. The Parkland students have taken the issue head on, gun safety groups are seeing a big uptick in interest, and conservative-leaning gun-owning groups, including #VetsForGunReform and the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense are calling for more restrictive gun laws.
Popular demand for gun safety regulations has been thwarted by Congress, in the past. A year after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that killed 13, 66% of people questioned in a Pew Research poll said gun control was more important than protecting gun owners’ rights; and support jumped for gun control after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that killed 26. Federal laws proposed after both massacres died in Congress.
Overall, the majority of Americans support gun control. So why have their elected representatives refused to pass meaningful gun control legislation for over 20 years?
The NRA and its associated political action committees spent over $50 million on the 2016 election, as Quartz reported earlier. That’s just what the group has to report to the Federal Election Commission, however. A 2016 internal audit showed the group spent a total $75 million on legislative and public affairs in 2016.
The amount of money the firearms industry (which is mostly represented by the NRA) reports for election spending is dwarfed by the overall reported lobbying spend from industries like health care, real estate, or oil and gas, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks campaign finance.
But relative to the gun industry’s size, it spends much more than other major industries: The pharmaceutical industry, which earned an estimated $450 billion in revenue in 2016, spent almost $43 million in that year’s election—including contributions from major drug manufacturers like Pfizer and AstraZeneca. The NRA spent millions of dollars more, but the US gun industry earned only an estimated $9 billion in revenue.
Unlike many other industry-focused lobby groups, the NRA spends with a laser-like focus, boosting pro-gun politicians who are almost always Republicans, and running attack ads on politicians support who gun control, usually Democrats. In fact, the NRA spent more than twice as much money, ($34.5 million) in 2016 on negative advertising against Democrats who might demand stronger gun laws than it did on positive advertising for Trump and other Republicans ($14.5 million).
In the pharmaceutical industry, by comparison, almost $20 million of 2016’s campaign spend went to Democrats, with the rest to Republicans—because companies are hoping to be in the good graces of whoever gets elected. Other industries that spend millions on campaigns to one political party, like, say, the oil and gas industry, are usually offset by donations from another field, like pro-environment groups. There are some gun control groups campaigning and lobbying, but they spent just $1.7 million during the 2016 election.
Where all of the NRA’s money comes from, exactly, remains opaque. As a 501(c)(4) non-profit social welfare organization, the NRA doesn’t have to disclose its donors. Membership dues like those collected at the conservative convention last week make up a portion of their funds, and “Ring of Freedom” donors like the Brownell family, which owns Brownells, an Iowa firearms distributor, or the gun-making Beretta family, are also big contributors. Then there are advertisers in the NRA’s magazines, like Illinois gun company Springfield Armory.
The impact of all this cash has been profound in recent decades. Presidents have tried to pass sweeping gun safety laws before—in March of 2000, Bill Clinton signed what was expected to become an industry-wide agreement with Smith and Wesson, but thanks to NRA influence it was unwound after George W. Bush was elected later that year.
Months after the Sandy Hook shooting, Barack Obama’s gun safety proposals failed to get enough votes in the Senate to clear the 60-vote threshold, despite polls showing 90% of the country supported universal background checks. “It came down to politics—the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections. [Congress members] worried that the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-Second Amendment,” Obama said in a speech afterward.
“Is our democracy broken?,” Florida congressman Ted Deutch said at a Feb. 22 town hall in response to a question from a Stoneman Douglas student whose sister had been killed in the high school shooting. “A little bit. A little bit, it is,” he said.
“When any organization spends tens of millions of dollars promoting the interests of gun corporations to influence what happens in our elections, then yes, our democracy is a little broken.”
In the last quarter of 2017 alone, the NRA spent over $900,000 lobbying members of Congress on 17 different bills, the group’s last Senate disclosure shows.
In the runup to elections, the NRA has also masterfully attacked candidates who support any gun control at all, even if they consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment.
In the 2016 election, the only politician the NRA spent more on campaigning against than Hillary Clinton was Deborah Ross, the North Carolina candidate for senator. Ross hardly seems the election’s most obvious target—a former civil rights lawyer who defended individual liberties for a career, and member of the state legislature for 10 years, she supports allowing “concealed carry” of guns to licensed owners. But as a state politician, she voted against allowing concealed carry in bars and restaurants where alcohol was served, earning her an “F” grade from the NRA, which ran ads that said “Defend your freedom, defeat Deborah Ross.”
Ross, who got 45% of the vote to her opponents 51%, said she wasn’t surprised by the attacks. “The reason they don’t want me in Congress is that I won’t do what they want,” Ross said. The NRA’s influence on elections is one thing, Ross said. “The bigger issue is how they keep people they’ve helped to get elected in line,” she said. They “don’t give any wiggle room to the people who they support and they have a chokehold on them.”
Republicans elected to office with NRA money behind them fear being primaried in the next election, by another Republican candidate that the group stumps up millions to support instead, or they fear they could suffer the “wrath” of the group, Ross said. “Politicians don’t like to say no to people, and particularly to people who have done something for them,” she said.
The reason the NRA is so adamant about fighting absolutely every gun control law is their fear that even small concessions could lead to huge changes, explains one conservative activist who works with big-money Republican donors. “If you give the Dems an inch, they are going to want two inches more,” he said. Some conservatives “want to join the consensus” on common sense gun laws, he said, but “you know the left is just going to keep coming and coming.”
Trump’s actions in the coming days may test the organization’s influence. He has pledged to cross the NRA on several issues, including raising the age for assault rifle purchases to 21 and strengthening background checks. After Trump’s Oval Office meeting with NRA representatives on March 3, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee walked back some of Trump’s promises, saying he supports stronger background checks, but not universal ones, and suggesting age limits for gun purchases might be easier to pass on a state level than a federal one.
Just as important as the money it spends on lobbying and ads, is the way the NRA energizes its base to urge politicians already in office to vote down gun safety legislation, and to pressure manufacturers not to agree to new safety measures.
Members are urged to send letters, make calls, and sometimes march. A September 2017 missive from the legislative arm, for example, encourages members to tell House representatives to vote for the “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act,” which allows gun owners to take their weapons across state lines. “They have the money. But we have the numbers,” it says, despite the fact that polls and spending data show the opposite is true. “That’s why no gun owner can afford to sit out this fight.” The bill passed the House 231-198.
The way the NRA activates its base strongly resembles the American Association of Retired Persons, the 38-million strong group for retired people, says Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the head of experimental research at PublicMind. Both organizations are effective influencers of sitting politicians, because Congress members rely on protests, town halls, and, and direct interaction to understand their constituents.
Members of Congress “have very little data and are incredibly risk adverse,” Cassino said. “When they get a lot of calls on an issue, that overrides” everything else, he said.
NRA members also been mobilized against companies. After Smith and Wesson made its agreement with President Clinton, NRA joined a boycott that tanked the company’s sales, and resulted in it being sold off for a fraction of what its assets were worth. The CEO at the time got anonymous death threats.
NRA members are strident supporters of the group. In 1968, as the FBI was investigating whether the NRA should register as a lobbying organization, one sent a telegram, complaining of the “flagrant Gestapo authority of the FBI investigation of the NRA” to his local Congress member, the FBI’s online records show (page 12).
The NRA is “under attack for spurious reasons,” said the new NRA member Petrou at CPAC. Rather than blame the NRA for the Florida school massacre, she said, Americans should be trying to recreate the traditional family values and the close-knit neighborhoods it used to have. None of the gunmen in the US’s recent mass shootings were NRA members, added Fleming.
While the NRA directs millions of dollars towards political campaigns and steers calls to Congress, the group has used savvy marketing tactics to position itself as an authority on the role of guns in American society.
Since 2004, the company’s advertising agency, Oklahoma’s Ackerman McQueen, has been producing a NRA “news agency” for the group, as Quartz wrote earlier. Dedicated to “the most comprehensive video coverage of Second Amendment issues, events and culture,” the channel presents guns as a symbol of American freedom, and a core conservative identifier—while marketing weapons and accessories.
Its women’s channel, for example, produces Love at First Shot, a program to introduce women to guns and “the shooting lifestyle, from cooking to concealed carry:”
Other NRA videos focus on stoking anxiety and division in the United States. In one controversial video, spokeswoman Loesh seems to advocate violence against anyone who protests Trump’s policies, or disagrees with NRA members. Criticism was harsh, even from some NRA members.
“Such fear-based incitements to hate and violence are the province of cowards,” three US military veterans wrote in response. “The truth is that the NRA is engaging in shameless fear tactics to increase membership so they can put more money into the pockets of politicians in Washington so firearms manufactures can increase sales resulting in profits and returns to shareholders.”
Fear of gun restrictions appear to drive gun sales and fill NRA membership rolls. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre killed 20 children and six teachers, the organization claimed that 100,000 new members joined in 18 days. (The NRA doesn’t regularly make its member numbers public, and what it does disclose is disputed.)
Two weeks after the Florida shooting, on Feb. 27, the NRA published a new, ominous short video clip on its Facebook page (which has nearly two million followers):
“To all American gun owners, THIS IS A WAKE UP CALL,” text over the video reads, as horror-movie music plays in the background. “We’re under attack.” It has been viewed more than 630,000 times already. Hundreds of commentators underneath the clip said they’re renewing their memberships, or signing up anew.