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Lincoln Agnew

Inside the NRA’s high-caliber influence

Yes, the NRA has an outsized influence on American politics. Just not for the reasons you think it does

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In April 2015, the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association brought nearly 80,000 gun rights supporters to Nashville, Tennessee. The three-day conference offered seminars on topics ranging from home defense to doomsday survivalism planning to cooking with wild game, and a massive exhibit hall featured the latest firearms and firearms accessories (customized holsters, specialized apparel and so on), along with live product demonstrations and a chance to meet celebrities like controversial rock star — and NRA board member — Ted Nugent. There was a prayer breakfast, a family-friendly indoor shooting range and free country music concerts every afternoon.

Yet the most prominent event of all was the Leadership Forum hosted by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which since 1975 has served as the organization’s primary political advocacy and lobbying branch. The forum featured speeches by more than 10 Republican presidential hopefuls, including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Taking place long before the 2016 primaries began, the event was an important part of the GOP’s so-called invisible primary — the very early, informal jockeying that occurs among each party’s presidential aspirants as they attempt to court elites, donors, activists and the party faithful.

Accordingly, the speakers not only touted their pro-gun credentials, but also spoke to their broader conservative beliefs across a range of issues, harshly criticized the Obama administration, and warned of the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Many took hawkish stances on terrorism and mocked President Barack Obama’s reluctance to use the term “radical Islam”; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, said that he wanted “a commander in chief who will look the American people in the eye and say that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat and we’re going to do something about it.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, speaking in support of businesses that refused service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, warned that if “Hollywood liberals and editorial columnists” could “conspire to crush the First Amendment, it won’t be long before they join forces again to come after the Second Amendment.”

For future President Donald Trump, the appearance previewed not just the themes but the rhetorical style that would characterize his campaign. He made populist appeals against free trade and opined that Vladimir Putin and ISIS had no respect for Obama. He also emphasized the threat posed by illegal immigration, calling the United States’ border with Mexico “a sieve” and saying that “it’s not what the country’s all about. ... Millions of people coming in illegally. We’ve gotta stop it at the border and we have to stop it fast.”

The 2015 meeting stood in stark contrast to the organization’s first annual membership convention. Held in 1948 — 77 years after the association was founded — the inaugural event brought around 700 NRA members to the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., for what it described as a “four-day gunner’s get-together.”

Gen. Jacob L. Devers from the U.S. Army kicked things off with a welcome address in which he emphasized the importance of rifle training for national defense and thanked the NRA for its assistance during World War II. In keeping with the association’s focus on marksmanship, subsequent sessions covered competitive shooting, management of local gun clubs and recruitment of “junior riflemen.” Politics were not absent from the event — NRA Executive Director C.B. Lister led a session on “The Legislative Picture” to explain what the organization was doing to combat gun control laws and to encourage attendees to write personalized pro-gun letters to politicians and newspaper editors. But no presidential aspirants made an appearance, and there was no mention of political parties.

Barry Goldwater once famously said that politicians should “go hunting where the ducks are” while seeking votes. For Republican candidates in the 21st century, the NRA — which reports having five million members — is unquestionably important hunting grounds.

But, as the scene from its 1948 meeting suggests, this was not always the case. NRA supporters have participated in politics at unusually high rates for a long time, consistently — and typically successfully — opposing gun regulations since as early as the 1930s. Yet, despite this durable political engagement, it has taken the NRA a long time to cultivate the powerful conservative constituency that supports its agenda today. 

Central as it is to politics, power can be difficult to pinpoint. We may have a general sense that certain groups are powerful because the observed political or economic environment seems to reflect their preferences and interests; weak gun regulations, for instance, suggest that the NRA is powerful, just as high levels of economic inequality suggest that big businesses and wealthy individuals have power.

However, even when we have good reason to suspect that particular groups are powerful, the ultimate source of a group’s power isn’t always easy to determine. From where, exactly, does a group like the NRA derive influence? Similarly, it can be challenging to identify the forms a group’s power takes. How, exactly, do business groups translate their resources into preferred political outcomes (such as the election of industry-friendly politicians and the adoption of industry-friendly regulations)? This difficulty is reflected in a lacuna in the field of political science, which acknowledges the importance of power but has struggled to explain how groups can build and use it over time.

The power of the NRA — although widely acknowledged by scholars and observers alike — is no exception to this challenge. Some politicians and commentators assert that financial resources — taking the form of outsized campaign contributions and expensive lobbying efforts — are the primary source of its influence. Others — focusing on financial resources in a different way — argue that the NRA’s true purpose is to serve as a front for firearms manufacturers who are interested in weakening gun laws in order to boost sales; these arguments typically don’t specify how, exactly, the money of gun manufacturers is translated into policy change, but they imply that financial resources play a central role. In short, the NRA — which operates in a political system that many Americans believe is dominated by large corporations and wealthy elites — is seen by some as another example of the power of money.


Lincoln Agnew

Yet these financially focused arguments cannot fully — or even mostly — explain the NRA’s influence within American politics. NRA members are mostly working-class individuals, not financial elites. And although the NRA does have an ongoing relationship with manufacturers, this relationship is neither a defining characteristic of the group nor a sufficient explanation of its political power.

For one thing, the NRA’s incentives are not always aligned with those of gun manufacturers. Given their interest in selling new firearms, manufacturers have no reason to oppose — and actually have good reason to support — laws that make it more difficult for individuals to sell existing guns to one another. These sorts of laws, however, are strongly opposed by the NRA.

There is evidence that the NRA can actually overpower manufacturers when disagreement exists. For example, when Smith & Wesson made an agreement with the Clinton administration in 2000 to alter its products and sales processes to improve safety, the NRA initiated a crippling boycott against the company: Its production declined by over 40% in just two years. So while manufacturers may (and do) still contribute to the NRA, this suggests that the NRA controls the relationship and is not a tool of the industry.

Moreover, the NRA’s spending does not stand out: Groups that make comparable campaign contributions (e.g., environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters and labor unions like the Service Employees International Union) do not appear to have influence comparable to the NRA’s, while groups that do appear to have comparable influence (e.g., business groups like the Chamber of Commerce) spend much more money than the NRA on lobbying.

Further, despite periods when gun regulation advocates have outspent the NRA — including in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, when billionaire Michael Bloomberg put his full financial weight behind gun control — there have been no major shifts in federal gun policy (which remains far more lax than in any other similarly developed nation). And finally, the NRA successfully persuaded policymakers on gun policy long before it began spending substantial sums on politics.

Taken together, all this suggests that other factors besides money are in play. 

From existing accounts of important gun control policy battles, we know that a crucial aspect of the NRA’s influence is its ability to translate the political intensity of its supporters into influence over policy.

Gun rights supporters — especially NRA members and those whose status as gun owners is an important part of their personal identity — are very politically active, both generally and relative to individuals who support gun control: They’re more likely to write letters or donate money on behalf of their cause, more likely to participate in electoral campaigns and more likely to join advocacy organizations like the NRA. Further, a remarkable 71% of individuals who favor less restrictive gun laws reported in 2014 that they are unwilling to ever vote for political candidates who support gun control; among those who favor stricter laws, only 34% said that they are unwilling to vote for candidates who do not share their gun preferences.

There is compelling evidence that this engagement gap has had major effects on gun control policy. As early as the 1930s, the NRA helped thwart some of the first federal attempts at gun control by leading a letter writing campaign against proposed gun regulations. This became a favored strategy, and an effective one; another campaign in the mid-1960s against strong gun control proposals being debated in Congress generated such a flood of mail that numerous policymakers credited the letters with the bill’s defeat.

Privately, politicians have acknowledged that pressure from gun owning constituents has altered their behavior as policymakers (with one senator, for example, saying that he’d “rather be a deer in hunting season than a politician who has run afoul of the NRA crowd”); these accounts are supported by quantitative analyses demonstrating how an “intense minority” on gun control has caused elected officials to vote against the will of an “apathetic majority.”

Indeed, part of what makes the NRA’s success so striking is the extent to which the American public favors new gun regulations. Americans have voiced support for gun control — both in the abstract and in terms of specific policy measures — since the advent of public opinion polling.

In what appears to be the earliest polling data on guns, Gallup found in 1938 that 79% of Americans favored gun control. Between that year and 1972, many polls were conducted by Gallup and Harris; not one found that less than 66% of Americans favored gun control, with support peaking in 1969 at 84%.

More recent polling has continued to demonstrate strong support for gun control policies: A 2017 Pew poll found that 84% of Americans support mandatory background checks for private and gun show sales, 89% support laws to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing guns, 71% support a federal database to track gun sales, and 68% support a ban on “assault” weapons.

These high levels of support for gun control are perhaps unsurprising given the state of gun violence in the United States. Horrific, high-profile mass shootings are unfortunately neither new nor rare phenomena. The Labor Day 1949 murder of 13 people in Camden, New Jersey, is considered the first mass shooting in U.S. history, and a shooting at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 took the lives of 16 individuals. Although not new, mass shootings have become even more deadly in recent years; the 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando — in which 49 people were murdered and 53 injured — was the deadliest in U.S. history until the fall 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting, which claimed the lives of 58 victims and caused injuries to hundreds of others. 

Moreover, while mass shootings command the greatest media attention, they are actually only a small part of the U.S. gun violence story. Between the beginning of 2001 — the year of the infamous September 11 terrorist attacks — and the end of 2016, guns were used to kill over 500,000 Americans. In that same timespan, terrorist attacks — which, unlike episodes of gun violence, almost always lead to swift government action — resulted in the deaths of around 3,200. Guns are involved in the deaths of more than 30,000 Americans annually — a number that rose to nearly 40,000 in 2017. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in 2015, more Americans have died from guns since 1970 than in all U.S. wars combined.

Put in comparative perspective, the United States is an anomaly. It was the site of 31% of the world’s mass shootings between 1966 and 2012, despite comprising only 5% of the world’s population. Moreover, the U.S. rate of gun-related deaths — at over 10 per 100,000 people as of 2016 — is exceptional among advanced countries; nearby Canada, for example, had only 2.1 gun deaths per 100,000 in 2016, Japan had just 0.2, the United Kingdom had 0.3, Switzerland (which has a high rate of gun ownership) had 2.8, and France 2.7. Along with Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela, the United States is among six countries that accounted for slightly more than half of the world’s gun-related deaths in 2016.

One factor that separates the United States from most other industrialized countries is the lack of strong legal restrictions on the ownership and use of guns. Mandatory, universal background checks — which the United States does not require — are very common throughout the world. Some countries outright ban the private ownership of handguns. Federal licensing is also common, with many countries requiring individuals to take a safety course to obtain a license.

And not only does the United States lack restrictions on firearms that are popular around the world, it has also witnessed the proliferation of laws that have in various ways weakened prior regulations. In fact, contrary to the claims of gun rights advocates, the United States had strong state level gun regulations for most of its history — regulations that have been eroded in recent decades by laws explicitly protecting and expanding gun rights.

Some form of “stand your ground” laws — which, with slight differences across jurisdictions, allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves with no duty to retreat — now exist in 34 states. Similarly, individuals are increasingly allowed to carry concealed firearms; in 21 states, gun owners are not even required to obtain a permit to do so, and in most other states, it is easy for anyone who legally owns a handgun to get a permit.

These factors — broad public support for gun control, high rates of gun-related deaths and the relative weakness of existing U.S. laws — underscore the high stakes of the gun debate, make the NRA’s long-term political success all the more notable, and suggest that the U.S. policy landscape would be substantially different in a world without the NRA. 

Excerpted from “Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force” (Princeton University Press).

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.