In an October 2016 Gallup poll, 55% of Americans favoured stricter laws covering firearm sales. Subsequently there have been 72 mass killings in the US, defined as an event where three or more people are killed (per the FBI), and no federal laws passed to increase scrutiny on gun sales. Seems illogical? Consider the NRA.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1871. Following the American Civil War, the primary function of the associated was to improve marksmanship and encourage recreational rifle shooting. In 1903, the NRA’s youth program began, with the goal of establishing rifle clubs at colleges, universities and military academies. Essentially, it was a hunting club, offering members access to shooting ranges and keeping them up to date with proposed firearm legislation through its premier magazine The American Rifleman. At this time, the NRA was primarily known for promoting safe and correct use of firearms. Today, it is regarded as “one of the most feared and effective players in Washington”. Despite only lobbying since 1960, it has become the most powerful lobbying group in the US.
Following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, gun control became a major political issue. Under President Johnson in 1968, the US Government passed the Gun Control Act, which stopped convicted felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns, and required detailed record keeping by licensed dealers. It also raised the legal age for buying a rifle or shotgun to 18, and handgun to 21.
The NRA was nervous. The group was split between extreme Second Amendment enthusiasts, who wanted to make lobbying a priority, and those who wanted to keep the group’s main agenda as a sporting organisation. If you’ve ever heard the slogan, “guns don’t kill people, criminals do,” then it’s clear who came out on top. In 1975, the legislative lobbying faction of the NRA, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), was founded.
After 1975, the NRA adopted ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric, essentially arguing that any law restricting complete gun freedom will lead to further restrictions on Second Amendment rights. In 1986, led by NRA member John Dingle, the Firearms Ownership Protection Act passed, reversing many provisions in the 1968 Act. The law capped inspections on gun dealers by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at one per year, and prohibits the government creating a national registry of gun ownership. In an associated amendment, civilian ownership of machine guns made after May 19, 1986 was banned, and despite their massive win, the NRA received heavy criticism for being weak on civil liberties.
So, what is lobbying? Lobbyists represent organisations that want politicians to support them. Usually, this involves meeting with politicians, donations, marketing campaigns, and grass-roots community outreach to raise awareness about their interests. The NRA’s approach is aggressive, unique and effective. Many federal government Republicans receive significant funding from the NRA. No other group contributed more to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But the NRA’s real focus and power is at state level, exemplified in the notorious downfall of Debra Maggart.
The NRA has a grading system on their website, which ranks lawmakers with a letter grade based on their voting records on gun rights. Republicans generally score higher than Democrats. Maggart, a member in the Tennessee State House since 2004, had an A+ rating. A proud gun owner, she once even held a political fundraiser at a skeet-shooting range. But in 2012, Maggart decided to defer (not oppose) legislation proposed by the NRA because it conflicted with interests of the state’s business community. The NRA erected billboards with her face next to Barack Obama’s, inferring she was working against Second Amendment rights, with the tag line ‘Defend Freedom – Defeat Maggart.’ The NRA found a candidate, Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers, to oppose Maggart in the primary and ran YouTube advertisements asking voters to ‘Vote Freedom first, vote Rogers for State representative.’ Debra Maggart lost the primary. Robert Draper, of the New York Times Magazine told The Daily that Senators have said off record that opposing the NRA “is a battle they do not wish to fight.”
Last year Nevada voted on whether to implement universal background checks state wide. Although, in accordance with the Gun Control Act, licenced dealers must keep records of who buys weapons, this does not include private sales or gun show sales. It passed, but the state’s Attorney-General, Adam Laxalt, chose not to enforce it. The law required federal background checks, and any sale without a background check would be a criminal offense. Laxalt argued that because the FBI would not complete these checks and therefore effectively the legislation would outlaw private sales. It was a stretch, but his decision held. Laxalt spoke at this year’s NRA annual meeting, introduced as a ‘great champion of the Second Amendment.’
In April 2017, the NRA launched Carry Guard. It’s self-defence insurance, underwritten by Westchester, and owned by Chubb (the largest commercial insurer in the US). This insurance means you are covered if you kill someone in self-defence. The lightest option, the Bronze Package, costs $154.95 annually and insures for up to $250,000 in civil protection and $50,000 in criminal defence. Effectively, it diminishes hesitation to use your weapon if you feel unsafe. As The Trace journalist Mike Spies said on NPR’s Fresh Air, “Get this insurance so you won’t go bankrupt after you kill someone.”
Following the Las Vegas mass shooting, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to ban bump stocks. This device effectively turns a semi-automatic into an automatic weapon, without the rigorous checks required for access to a weapon of that calibre. Unexpectedly, the NRA did not oppose this, stating that “devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.” Several leading Republicans have confirmed they would consider such regulation, and many in D.C. are hopeful that finally some gun law reform may be enacted through bi-partisan support.
However, The Trace’s James Burnett warns not to get your hopes up. The NRA did not endorse legislation to ban bump stocks but rather to enforce new regulations. In fact, the NRA used the opportunity to reiterate its main prerogative: National Right-to-Carry reciprocity. Introduced by Congressman Richard Hudson (R-NC), the proposed legislation would allow gun owners to treat concealed-carry permits like driver’s licenses. Currently, concealed-carry permits from one state are not valid in another state. The NRA argues that this prevents “law-abiding Americans to defend themselves and their families from acts of violence.”
The NRA has almost 5 million members, and membership revenue of at least $140 million annually. Historically, NRA membership rises following mass shootings. Consensus among those who study the NRA’s tactics is that their power doesn’t come from their financial holdings, but from their well-crafted brand. NRA membership is more like religion than politics. The NRA is fighting for freedom and the constitution, nothing partisan about it. Defining itself as ‘America’s longest-standing civil rights organisation,’ it has mastered the art of us-versus-them rhetoric. They’re not selling memberships, they’re selling a way of life.
The full NRA statement in response to the Vegas shooting can be found here.