Is the NRA finally losing its power over America?

Analysis: Confronted by alleged scandal and shifting public sentiment, gun rights group is fighting for relevance

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 06 May 2019 11:53 EDT
President Trump addresses NRA convention in Indianapolis

When Donald Trump recently addressed the annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Indianapolis, it was for the fifth year in succession, and his third as president.

In 2017, he bragged that he had received the NRA’s endorsement at the earliest ever stage in the election cycle, and was the first sitting president to address the event since Ronald Reagan in 1983.

This year, while Mr Trump went through the motions of publicly recognising the organisation’s leadership – “I’ve been following Oliver [North] for a long time. Great guy.” – he spent more time bragging about his own perceived achievements, than those of the NRA. The members of the organisation that spent $30m helping elect him in 2016 received just the briefest nod.

“Every day, you stand up for our God-given rights without exception, without fail, and without apology,” he said.

Indeed, the NRA the president was speaking to in 2019 was a very different beast to the all-powerful, political steamroller he addressed just two years earlier. Beset by leadership infighting triggered by allegations of massive fraud, targeted by prosecutors questioning its tax-exempt status and having seen many of the candidates it backed in the 2018 midterms lose badly, the NRA appeared much weaker and more vulnerable. Could it be that the NRA’s days are over?

“We’ve seen them on the back foot before, in the 1990s. They’ve been down before and you can never count them out,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a grassroots group with five million supporters, told The Independent. “They are under intense scrutiny now because of their ties to Russia, and the probe into their tax-exempt status. Also, there is a lot of public infighting.”

For many years, the NRA was feared and loathed in equal measure by progressives and supporters of gun regulation. Founded in the aftermath of the US Civil War and perhaps with more than five million members, the organisation, through its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, was the most powerful and best-funded special interests group in the country, pushing the interests of the gun manufacturing lobby, and to a lesser extent, those of gun owners.

Over the years, activists for gun control watched as the NRA’s position became more extreme. Having supported modest regulation up until the 1970s, the NRA started opposing any perceived efforts to control a person’s ease to obtain a weapon, or the industry’s access to the market. It always claimed to do so on the grounds that it was protecting the second amendment of the US constitution, which is the basis for many activists’ claim that they have the right to bear arms.

It opposed Bill Clinton’s 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, which prohibited the manufacture of semi-automatic firearms for civilians. The ban expired in 2004.

And even when weapons such as the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle increasingly became the gun of choice for those carrying out mass shootings and attacks on schools, the NRA objected to any controls. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 27 children and teachers were killed by a young man armed with a semi-automatic rifle, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA chief executive, claimed the solution was more weapons, not regulation.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said the very next week.

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As it was, it was another mass school shooting, another senseless tragedy, that may have turned the tide. In the aftermath of the February 2018 shooting at Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and staff were killed, the pupils of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School refused to simply accept platitudes from politicians. In a spontaneous response that swiftly earned nation-wide support, the students demanded action to regulate the kinds of guns that had literally torn apart their classmates. They also educated people about the role of the NRA in funding not just Mr Trump, but numerous politicians.

“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around,” Cameron Kasky, one of the survivors, said at the time. “This is about us begging for our lives. This isn’t about the GOP, this isn’t about the Democrats, this is about us creating a badge of shame for any politicians accepting money from the NRA and using us as collateral.”

As the students protested, the way the public viewed the NRA began to shift. In March 2018, an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found that for the first since 2000, more Americans had a negative view of the organisation than positive. That has continued: a recent survey found up to 53 per cent viewed the NRA more as a political lobbying group than being interested in gun rights.

Gun regulation activists say many of the NRA’s problems have been self-inflicted. One was the the decision to spend millions of dollars with Oklahoma-based Ackerman McQueen, an arrangement that recently blew up in public, when the NRA sued the advertising agency on which it had spent up to $40m (£30m) a year, accusing it of withholding billing information and breaching its contract. Ackerman McQueen denied the accusation, saying the lawsuit was “frivolous, inaccurate and intended to cause harm to the reputation of our company”.

Another challenge to the NRA was the decision by Letitia James, attorney general of New York, where the NRA was founded in 1871, to launch an investigation into its tax-exempt status, something that has historically hugely boosted its finances. “As part of this investigation, the attorney general has issued subpoenas. We will not have further comment at this time,” said Ms James’s office.

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As it was, news of the probe came while Oliver North was being forced out as the group’s president as part of the fall-out over the Ackerman McQueen contract, under which he was paid $1m a year for a role that under previous presidents, such as actor Charlton Heston, was largely ceremonial.

Alongside this, Maria Butina, who in December 2018 pleaded guilty of acting as a foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government to influence the 2016 election through the NRA, was this month jailed for 18 months.

Perhaps, the most telling insight into the waning power of the NRA came in the 2018 November midterms, where it was outplayed and outspent by gun regulation campaigners, including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. A number of candidates that had the NRA’s highest A-rating, lost to opponents who supported gun regulation.

Among the winners were Democrats Jason Crow, who won Colorado’s sixth congressional district, and Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was killed in a notorious shooting at a Florida petrol station in 2012, and who made gun control central to her campaign to win Georgia’s sixth congressional district.

“We endorsed well over 300 people in the country and won most of those races,” Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, a political action committee formed by Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman wounded in a shooting, said in November. “We were across the map. It wasn’t a niche local issue.”

The NRA, which recently claimed its membership had reached 5.5 million, a figure questioned by its critics, did not respond to enquiries. A lawyer for the organisation, William Brewer III, last week issued a statement saying it would “fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances”.

He added: “The NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”

Those who have been challenging the NRA and its agenda for years say it would be foolish to write it off.

Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a nation-wide gun safety group, said the group may now be at its most dangerous.

“They are under a lot of pressure, but I would never consider them out,” she said. “They are an organisation that thrives when they can up the rhetoric and play on people’s fears. That is what we can expect them to do now.”

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