Compared with others, the 145-year-old lobby group isn’t a vast spender – but the NRA has the power to mobilize a grassroots support and make Washington listen
Why is the National Rifle Association so powerful? Here’s a clue: it’s not (just) about the money.
The vast majority of Americans support gun control, and yet Congress has failed to toughen laws even in the wake of a series of mass shootings. With the NRA pouring money into political races at record levels it is an easy argument to make that the gun lobby has bought Washington – but that fails to paint a full picture.
In 2017, the NRA spent at least $4.1m on lobbying – more than the $3.1m it spent in all of 2016. That’s real money, but for comparison, the dairy industry has spent $4.4m in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The National Association of Realtors, one of the biggest spenders, has paid out $32.2m lobbying on housing issues. The US Chamber of Commerce, the largest spender of all, has spent $104m.
The NRA’s influence does not stem solely from lobbying. Thanks to the supreme court’s Citizens United decision, the spigot is now wide open for “independent expenditures” allowing groups and individuals to back – or attack – candidates, as long as those campaigns are not made in cooperation with, or at the request of, a candidate.
The NRA bet big on 2016’s presidential election, making independent expenditures worth $53.4m. And the cash seemed to have been well spent. The NRA poured $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost, according to CRP. Its only big loss was in Nevada, for the seat vacated by the Democratic minority leader, Harry Reid.
Nor does the power of the guns manufacturers fully explain the NRA’s power. Guns are big(ish) business. Gun and ammunition manufacturers will have revenues of $13.3bn and profits of $1bn in 2017, according to IBISWorld. Gun and ammunition stores this year will have revenues of $85.bn and profits of $256m.
But there are far bigger industries. The auto industry (which has spent $51.8m on lobbying so far in 2017), is on course for revenues of $105.3bn and profits of $3.1bn in 2017.
The NRA’s influence, too, is out of proportion to its financial firepower. This is a world with far bigger spenders in Washington – the billionaire Koch brothers spent $889m on the election. And far bigger industries: Apple’s revenues were a record $52bn in the last three months alone and their cash, along with the other tech giants, makes the gun industry look like a rounding error.
Dan Auble, a senior researcher at CRP, said NRA’s spending was at a record high but remained “paltry” in comparison to groups like the pharmaceutical industry.
If the gun lobby is to be successful, it needs to spend money in Washington, and it does. But the amount alone does not explain the NRA’s success.
“The NRA is not successful because of its money. To be sure, it is hard to be a force in American politics without money. The NRA has money that it uses to help its favored candidates get elected. But the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters,” said Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
By choosing its battles wisely, the NRA has shown an ability to swing primary elections in favor of pro-gun candidates, Winkler said. “That’s the real source of their strength,” he said. That and its use of a relatively small number of highly motivated people to push an agenda that appears out of step with the general population, which, according to recent polling, is in favour of stricter gun laws.
The 145-year-old organization claims 5 million active members, although that number is disputed. But whatever its actual size, that membership is a powerful tool, said Robert Spitzer, professor of crime, law and policy and gun control at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of five books on guns.
“They have a very powerful ability to mobilize a grassroots support and to engage in politics when most Americans can barely be bothered to vote,” he said. “I mean more than voting. I mean going to a meeting, writing a letter, contacting a friend,” he said. “And because so few Americans do those things, if you get a bunch of people in a locality who are all prepared to go out to a meeting they can have a big effect.
“Elected officials feel the impact of constituents when they hear their voices,” said Spitzer. “Politics is often about the squeaky wheel – who makes the loudest noise, who gets the most attention.”
There are, however, problems on the horizon for the NRA. For one, the gun control lobby is growing. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety is threatening to spend more than $25m in 2018 races. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control political action committee set up by Gabrielle Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman whose career was ended when she was shot along with 18 others in an Arizona suburb, spent $13.4m in 2016.
The issue for gun control advocates is that they have yet to develop as powerful a voice – or as deep contacts in Washington – as the gun lobby. “I think it’s fair to say that so far they have been thwarted at the federal level,” said Auble. “They are just not as well funded, not as established, and don’t have the history the NRA has.”
Even if the gun control groups gave the same amount of money to the same candidates, said Winkler, those candidates would not vote in favor of gun control. “It’s not just money,” he said. “If Michael Bloomberg said he will give you $2 for every $1 the NRA gives you, it is not going to work.”
The truth is that gun control is not an area where money is leading politics, he said. It’s an issue that some voters care a lot about and elected officials respond to those voters. “Especially the intense, mobilized, minority of voters that support most vigorously the right to bear arms.”
But putting the money and its current influence aside, the NRA faces existential issues in the years ahead as its opposition grows.
The election of Donald Trump was a major victory for the NRA. On the eve of his 100th day in office, Trump addressed the NRA’s annual conference, the first sitting president to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1983. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you,” Trump told the cheering crowd.
“I am here to deliver you good news: the eight-year assault on your second amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
That cheering crowd – largely white, male and older – was a snapshot of the people who swung Trump’s victory. It’s also a picture of a demographic in decline.
By mid-century the US is expected to become a majority minority nation. The NRA’s core constituency is basically older white males. Younger people are not taking up gun ownership at the same rate as older people did, said Spitzer, and polls of minorities show they feel more strongly about gun control. Attempts by the NRA to broaden its appeal do not seem to have paid off. “They are facing an existential demographic problem,” said Spitzer.
Even a Trump presidency may not be good for the NRA. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presented the NRA with obvious foes. Gun sales are falling after the glory years of the Obama administration, when each mass shooting led to a spike in sales as Democrats called for gun control and gun owners ran to the shops. With their people in office, the industry – and the NRA – lack a demon to drive sales and membership.
The NRA has shifted gears post-Obama, taking a leaf out of Trump’s all-caps textbook and attacking the media for demonizing gun owners and the president. Such a move is unlikely to win over minority support.
“If the NRA really wants to reach a new generation, maybe they need to reach out to Black Lives Matter. Who are the people who are being abused by government agents the most? You would think that Black Lives Matter would have some affinity with that idea that you need guns to protect yourself against a hostile government that can’t protect you,” said Spitzer.
But even the NRA knows that the best thing that the gun control movement could see right now would be a lot of African Americans or Muslims carrying guns around America.
The NRA has changed many times in its history, for much of the 20th century it supported gun control. For all its current power there is nothing to suggest the organization is invulnerable to change. Indeed, in this month’s special elections NRA favorites fell to candidates who support more gun control. “The NRA face really significant challenges. How they manage them remains to be seen,” said Spitzer.
This article was amended on 28 November 2017 to clarify a description of the Citizens United supreme court ruling.