Let’s Talk About the NRA

Posted November 3, 2018 12:15 p.m. EDT

The massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue a week ago was terrifyingly predictable — with an equally predictable response. President Donald Trump and members of Congress denounced the violence, but show no signs of actually doing anything.

Why is it that polls show that voters want more gun safety laws yet Congress can’t pass any? One reason is the National Rifle Association, a heavyweight player in this election and every election. On Tuesday, the NRA once again will help deflect what surveys suggest is the people’s will to stop it.

I write this as a former NRA member who grew up on a farm — my 12th birthday present was my own .22 rifle — and I acknowledge that it once was a great organization for shooting enthusiasts.

But it has been hijacked by extremist leaders committed not to their members’ (much more reasonable) views, but to hard-line resistance of safety regulations. All countries have violent, hateful people, but only in America do we give them ready access to assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, and that’s in part because of the NRA and its political influence.

The NRA has been admired and feared for decades for its political influence. When Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000, it was widely said that the NRA made the difference.

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says that the NRA’s power is often attributed to its financial support for candidates, but that its endorsements are far more important. The key, he says, is that many gun rights supporters are single-issue voters, while historically those against the NRA have also cared about the economy, civil rights, foreign policy and so on.

Yet there are signs that NRA influence just may have peaked. The NRA has raised dues twice since 2016, in what could be a sign of financial challenges. Revenue from dues fell to $128 million last year, down from $163 million the previous year.

The group claims 6 million members, although many analysts believe that number is inflated. But even 4 million members is huge, and its print magazines appear to be gaining circulation.

Gallup shows public opinion still net approving of the NRA, although trending downward in recent years. But two polls this year found that more Americans view the NRA unfavorably than favorably.

“Even voters in these largely Republican districts see [the NRA] as another special interest against which candidates should take a stand,” the Global Strategy Group concluded after polling in largely Republican-held battleground congressional districts. Some polls find a gulf between gun owners and the NRA, with 74 percent of ordinary NRA members willing to support universal background checks that the NRA ferociously opposes.

One sign of change is that members of Congress now regularly boast about how badly they are rated by the NRA. “I am proud of my F rating from the NRA,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York told me. “I mention it in my gun-safety town halls, releases on gun safety and campaign mailings.”

Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA and author of the book “Gunfight,” believes the NRA faces serious challenges, including demographic ones: Its core constituency of white men is shrinking. Yet Winkler is wary of concluding that the NRA has peaked. He notes that after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, there was enormous pressure for federal gun measures. “The reason nothing has happened since is, I think, largely due to the NRA,” Winkler said.

When the National Rifle Association was founded in 1871, it was focused on marksmanship and hunting and bore little resemblance to today’s organization. Almost everyone, in and out of the NRA, accepted that there should be restrictions on firearms. “Gun control laws were ubiquitous” in the 19th century, Michael Waldman notes in his book “The Second Amendment.” In Dodge City, a symbol of the Wild West, a photo shows a sign on Main Street in 1879 warning: “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA favored tighter gun laws; its president, Karl Frederick, said that carrying weapons “should be sharply restricted and only under license.” As recently as the 1960s, the NRA supported — more grudgingly — some limits on guns. But in 1977 a coup within the NRA put hard-liners in charge. The NRA moved to emphasize handguns and personal security, and the NRA fervently backed a new movement to reinterpret the Second Amendment, which had been regarded as a relic having to do with state militias.

In 1991, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative, dismissed calls to reinterpret the Second Amendment as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” Now that “fraud” is the law of the land — a tribute to the undeniable effectiveness of the NRA.

The NRA has also expanded the gun-buying constituency by promoting the idea of empowered women — even feminists — packing handguns in their purses. Among NRA programs reaching out to women are “Refuse To Be a Victim” and “Love at First Shot.”

Fearmongering about gun confiscation served the NRA’s interests, galvanizing donations and voting, but it also served the interests of gun manufacturers by hugely increasing sales. By one count, the number of Americans licensed to carry concealed weapons soared to 17.3 million today from 4.6 million in 2007.

That raises a larger question: Has the gun industry hijacked a hunters’ organization and turned it into one that drums up demand for firearms and accessories, to serve the industry’s bottom line?

“The NRA appears to have evolved into the lobby for gun and ammunition manufacturers rather than gun owners,” Adolphus Busch IV, of the Anheuser Busch beer fortune, wrote in 2013, resigning his life membership in the group. “Your current strategic focus places a priority on the needs of gun and ammunition manufacturers while disregarding the opinions of your 4 million individual members. One only has to look at the makeup of the 75-member board of directors, dominated by manufacturing interests, to confirm my point.”

Consider another of the NRA’s current campaigns: to allow silencers. Silencers have been largely banned since the 1930s, but the NRA and enthusiasts like Donald Trump Jr. argue that they should be allowed as a matter of liberty — and for health reasons — to reduce hearing loss associated with gunfire. No one takes this public health argument seriously, but allowing silencers would be a huge boon for the gun industry. If 5 million Americans each bought a silencer for two firearms, it could amount to $1 billion in sales.

Moreover, most firearms today don’t have the threaded barrels needed to accommodate a silencer. So a gun owner who wanted both a rifle and a handgun with silencers would also buy two more firearms — a further benefit to the industry.

“The NRA has policy positions and rhetorical positions that are aligned with where the gun industry makes its money,” notes J. Adam Skaggs of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the gun industry has hijacked the NRA. Mike Weisser, a gun store owner and writer about gun policy, argues persuasively that the gun industry and the NRA work together not out of a nefarious conspiracy but because together they can maximize both NRA influence and industry revenue.

My first encounter with the NRA was in a hunter safety class in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, when I was in seventh grade. At the end of the class, we all received a one-year NRA membership. At the time it was simply a grassroots organization of sportsmen, but it later morphed into an extremist organization that fights any restrictions on firearms.

NRA advocacy is one reason the United States diverged from the path of other advanced nations — and one reason there are now more guns in America (about 393 million) than people (326 million). A more grim indication of American exceptionalism: Americans in their late teens are 82 times more likely to be murdered with guns than their peers in other advanced nations.

We can do better, and one step would be to avoid demonizing gun owners, while relentlessly challenging the political influence of the NRA.

It has overreached and is vulnerable. If we want to tackle gun violence in America, we can start by discrediting it as an extremist organization that manipulates gun owners for the benefit of the firearms industry and that has been a catastrophe for the American public.


Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018

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