Beyond NRA: Other gun rights groups spend millions in Washington to influence laws

·11 min read

WASHINGTON – The National Rifle Association is accustomed to drawing national attention amid calls for gun safety legislation after mass shootings, such as the one that left 19 students and two teachers dead last week in Uvalde, Texas.

A handful of other gun rights groups also hold sway in the nation’s capital, where they fork over millions to lobbyists each year to try to persuade legislators and policymakers to take their side on issues they care about.

Gun rights advocacy organizations spent a record $15.8 million on lobbying last year, according to an analysis by Open Secrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks lobbying and campaign contributions. Since 1998, the industry has spent nearly $200 million on federal lobbying.

The top spender last year was not the NRA, which held its annual convention over the weekend. That spot went to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which paid lobbyists $5 million in 2021.

A gun control advocate holds a sign across from the National Rifle Association annual meeting Friday in Houston.
A gun control advocate holds a sign across from the National Rifle Association annual meeting Friday in Houston.

A spokesperson for the foundation told USA TODAY on Monday that the group is open to discussions about gun safety legislation – as long as it's reasonable.

"We're willing to sit down with anybody and to have the conversation that's going to arrive at real solutions, as long as those conversations respect the rights of law-abiding Americans," National Shooting Sports Foundation spokesperson Mark Oliva said. "We're willing to sit down with those, even those who have strongly held beliefs on the other side of the spectrum. We want to work together."

When President Joe Biden returned Monday to the White House after visiting Sunday with grieving families and first responders in Uvalde, he said he planned to continue pushing for passage of gun safety legislation, relying on “rational” Republicans to reach an agreement with Democrats.

Here is a look at gun rights groups aside from the NRA that may have a seat at the table, or at least a lobbyist on the payroll, to influence what happens.

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National Shooting Sports Foundation

The National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association for the firearms industry. Among its thousands of members are gun manufacturers, distributors and retailers, as well as shooting ranges and sportsmen’s organizations.

The foundation was formed in 1961 after a series of meetings sponsored by Field & Stream magazine, a publication focused on hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. The organization’s mission was to “promote a better understanding of and a greater participation in hunting and the shooting sports,” according to the foundation website.

Oliva said the group is different from the NRA, which represents millions of individual gun owners, but their interests align when it comes to the right to bear arms.

“We're not a Second Amendment organization,” Oliva said. “But we are a trade association that couldn't exist without the Second Amendment. So it is integral to what we do.”

The NSSF has increased the amount it spends on lobbying since 2012, when a shooter killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Before that shooting in December 2012, the group spent less than a million each year on lobbying, according to Open Secrets. Since then, NSSF reported paying at least six lobbyists more than $2.4 million overall each year.

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Oliva said the organization took part in discussions about stricter gun laws after Sandy Hook and championed passage of legislation in 2018 designed to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that retailers use to perform background checks on prospective gun buyers.

A USA TODAY review of lobbying reports found the organization sought to influence lawmakers last year on more than 30 pieces of legislation, including measures governing access to public lands, allowing concealed carry of firearms across state lines and creating an appeals process for regulations imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“We're a trade association like any other trade association. It just happens to be our product is firearms and ammunition, so certainly a lightning rod product,” Oliva said. "There's many heated opinions about it on both sides of the argument. This is where we're at."

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Gun Owners of America

Gun Owners of America is a nonprofit lobbying organization founded in 1976 by California state Sen. Hubert Leon “Bill” Richardson. The organization, which bills itself as the “no compromise gun lobby,” spent $2,771,929 in total lobbying expenditures in 2021, according to Open Secrets.

GOA’s posted mission is to defend the Second Amendment. It formed a national network of attorneys working with lawmakers and citizens to keep gun ranges and gun clubs open.

In 2021, GOA sought to influence approximately 80 bills, including the ATF Accountability Act of 2021 and the Assault Weapons Ban of 2021.

An armed gun rights activist counterprotests during a rally outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association on July 14, 2017, in Fairfax, Va.
An armed gun rights activist counterprotests during a rally outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association on July 14, 2017, in Fairfax, Va.

Mentions of Biden’s “gun agenda” are found throughout GOA’s website. In early May, the lobby filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security for information about the Biden administration's planned Disinformation Governance Board, referred to as the “Ministry of Truth” on GOA's website. The board’s formation was postponed, pending an internal investigation.

GOA released a national alert in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde.

“We mourn the innocent Texans who were murdered by a horrifically evil person,” Erich Pratt, GOA senior vice president, wrote. “Sadly, we have already seen significant politicization of this tragedy for political gain by those on the Left.”

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Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs at Gun Owners of America, asserted in an interview Tuesday that the organization is "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington, D.C."

"That means that we're not going to stop fighting to defend the Second Amendment and to restore it to an uninfringed state, until all gun laws are repealed," Johnston said.

He said "semi-automatic weapons are the best self-defense tools available right now."

"The Second Amendment is about defending yourself from an attacker, be it a criminal, or a tyrannical government," Johnston said. "And so Americans need to have the same weaponry as the military."

He said no legislation would have prevented what happened in Uvalde, arguing that a determined shooter would have found a way to get a weapon, regardless of age limits or background checks or bans.

"We will be working night and day to make sure that gun control doesn't pass, that anti-gun politicians and groups are not able to abuse the deaths of children in order to pass an unrelated gun control agenda," Johnston said.

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National Association for Gun Rights

The National Association for Gun Rights boasts a growing membership of 4.5 million “grassroots activists" and casts itself as a leader in a “battle against the gun grabbers.” The association, an unabashed rival of the NRA, aims to “halt the radical anti-gun agenda across the nation.”

“Accepting NO COMPROMISE on the issue of gun control, NAGR works tirelessly to hold politicians accountable for their anti-gun views, and has made great strides in protecting and preserving the Second Amendment,” the group says on its website.

Craftsman Veetek Witkowski holds a newly assembled AR-15 rifle April 10, 2013, at Stag Arms in New Britain, Conn. Gun rights advocates warn Congress against passing gun control legislation, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons, in the wake of the Uvalde massacre.
Craftsman Veetek Witkowski holds a newly assembled AR-15 rifle April 10, 2013, at Stag Arms in New Britain, Conn. Gun rights advocates warn Congress against passing gun control legislation, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons, in the wake of the Uvalde massacre.

The association has a political action committee that supports candidates committed to fighting gun control and expanding Second Amendment rights and protections, as well as a super-PAC that can spend unlimited amounts to oppose candidates who don’t support its agenda. The association's legal arm defends gun owners in court and challenges laws it calls unconstitutional.

The association was founded by Republican consultant Mike Rothfeld, who is known for his acumen in direct-mail campaigns. He worked with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and boasted that his company, Saber Communications, emailed 50 million to 70 million pieces of spam a month, including for the National Association for Gun Rights.

Dudley Brown, president of the association, said in an interview Tuesday that the organization doesn't employ "the Gucci-loafer lobbyists that the NRA tries to employ."

"We're very much a use-your-members-to-apply-pressure not use-your-lobbyist-to-wine-and-dine," he said. "Our general rule is if you don't have anything bad to say about a politician, don't say anything at all."

The association first reported hiring federal lobbyists in 2013 and has spent an average of $1.2 million annually since 2017, Open Secrets reported. The group paid lobbyists $1.6 million in 2021 to influence policymakers and legislators.

On a fourth-quarter lobbying disclosure, the association listed dozens of bills it was monitoring and potentially trying to influence, including measures on interstate transportation of firearms and civil liability of gun and ammunition manufacturers and sellers resulting from misuse of a firearm.

“In each case NAGR opposes gun control and supports removing restrictions on the right to bear arms,” the filing said.

The association said the mass shooting in Uvalde was a “horrific act of evil” and criticized supporters of restrictions on who can carry guns in schools.

Brown said he has a warning for lawmakers in Washington: Any effort to institute curbs on guns will be met with stiff opposition.

"Our big concern is that Congress would – and the White House would – push for a ban on semi-automatic, so-called assault weapons," he said, adding that millions of Americans own such firearms. "If the Democrats want to make those illegal, they are running into a buzz saw."

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Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms positions itself as “the common sense gun lobby.” Based in Bellevue, Washington, the organization is chaired by Alan Gottlieb, an author, conservative political activist and founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.

CCRKBA spent $994,119 in total lobbying expenditures in 2021, according to Open Secrets. Senate lobbying disclosure records show expenses for lobbying activities during the first quarter of 2022 reached more than $125,000.

Biden is mentioned several times throughout the committee’s website, which refers to his “anti-gun bias agenda” and “lies” about the Second Amendment.

On May 25, the SAF and CCRKBA released a joint statement about the tragedy in Uvalde calling for law enforcement agents to serve as school resource officers to prevent mass shootings.

“If there is blame beyond that of the killer, it must be shared by political leaders whose policies have turned our public schools into soft targets, and by self-appointed activists and school boards that have resisted school resource officer programs, opposed and prohibited programs that train teachers and staff to provide armed first response in an emergency, while perpetuating dangerous ‘Gun Free School Zone’ laws,” the statement reads.

“We spend billions of dollars on foreign aid. We can provide millions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies for school resource officers. We protect our politicians with armed security. Let’s protect our schools to the same degree,” it continues.

Gottlieb told USA TODAY that CCRKBA opposes background checks that could turn into a "registration system" and any bans on semi-automatic weapons, 9mm pistols and standard-capacity magazines.

The NRA's claim that Biden wants to ban 9mm pistols is misleading, according to fact-checker Politifact.

Gottlieb said the Second Amendment protects the right to handguns and other firearms, and a ban would be unconstitutional.

"Less than 1% of all these crimes are committed with rifles to start with, not even counting what you call an assault rifle. So the problem we see is that if you ban one kind of gun, or one kind of weapon, people are gonna find another way to do it," he said. "The problem is you have to keep these people off the streets."

Gottlieb proposes more funding for law enforcement and safeguards for schools and other locations that are "magnets for crazy people to commit unspeakable acts."

"It's not an easy solution. But just demonizing guns and gun owners isn't going to work," he said.

CCRKBA is a tax-exempt organization, according to a filing to the Internal Revenue Service in 2020.

CCRKBA sought to influence bills such as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun lobby groups besides the NRA working to influence DC lawmakers