For years, proponents of tougher gun restrictions have placed much of the blame for America’s crisis of gun death on the National Rifle Association. So it was no surprise that in the aftermath of the mass murder at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, President Biden and former President Obama both pointed to the “gun lobby” as one of the culprits blocking change. “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” Biden said in an address to the nation from the White House.
By the “gun lobby,” Biden was referring in large part to the NRA, the gun-rights behemoth that has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting Republican candidates who oppose tighter gun laws. The NRA still has undeniable cachet in right-wing circles, including the power to convene many of the country’s top GOP politicians. In just a few days, former President Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott are among those slated to attend the group’s annual meeting in Houston, just a few hours from Uvalde, where a gunman killed at least 19 children and two adults.
But the NRA isn’t the primary reason that Congress is unlikely to enact the laws that Biden, Obama and other national Democrats seek. The grim drumbeat of mass shootings in America and the political stalemate over guns have obscured the fact that the NRA’s power is in steep decline, sapped by ongoing lawsuits, leadership scandals, and even a bankruptcy filing.
Its political spending is where you start. The NRA shelled out just over $29 million on the 2020 elections—a big number, but down from more than $54 million in 2016. According to Sheila Krumholz (executive director of OpenSecrets), a non-profit organization that monitors money in politics, the NRA has so far spent less than $10,000 in 2022. The gun-rights group’s spending has been in “precipitous decline,” Krumholz says, although she cautions that the NRA will likely ramp up spending just before the November election.
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The group’s clout is fading in other ways. The NRA membership has declined steadily since 2018 after stagnating at around 5,000,000 for several years, according to Internal Documents obtained by The Reload. The publication focuses on the firearms sector. The Reload documents show that revenue from member dues had dropped to $16 millions by August 2021. This was more than the company expected. There are also signs that the NRA’s supporters are aging. The NRA Political Victory Fund’s 2019 donors identified 56% as being retired in comparison to only 40% the year before.
The NRA is being hampered by increasing numbers of lawsuits alleging violations of campaign finance laws, deferring charitable donations and misuse of millions by executive officers. Letitia Jam, a Democrat from New York State, filed one of these suits to try and disintegrate the organization. The NRA tried to declare bankruptcy but was stopped by a judge. (The NRA didn’t respond to inquiries regarding this story.
Legal fees for the group’s court battles swelled to one-fifth of its expenses last year, jumping from $6.5 million in 2020 to $31.1 million in 2021, according to financial documents obtained by The Reload. On the popular social messaging app Telegram, the organization has taken to hawking schemes that promise to convert followers’ retirement savings to gold and other precious metals to combat “Bidenflation.”
Continue reading: The Elementary School Shooting at Uvalde in Texas: What we Know so Far
And yet, despite the NRA’s troubles, it represents a culture of gun ownership that is stronger than the organization itself. “Some people think the power comes from its financial influence,” says Matthew Lacombe, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of The NRA turned gun owners into a political force with Firepower. “I would argue that instead, the NRA’s primary source of power is related to the political dedication, activism and intensity of its members.”
That loyalty has weathered scandals that embarrassed a group which positions itself as a champion of ordinary Americans whose rights are under threat from the “elites.” Infighting among NRA leadership broke into the open in 2019, with leaked documents and legal filings exposing accusations of misspent funds and lavish shopping sprees by executives. Among the revelations were that longtime NRA chief Wayne LaPierre had billed the organization more than $275,000 “for purchases at the Zegna luxury men’s wear boutique in Beverly Hills.” The group also shut down its online media arm, NRATV, in 2019 after its costs ballooned to $20 million a year while attracting a negligible audience; the organization denounced their own content as “distasteful and racist” in legal filings.
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But America’s obsession with guns runs deeper than the NRA’s balance sheet. Many gun owners vote on gun rights even if they’re not dues-paying NRA members. And with or without the NRA’s financial and organizational muscle, the committed activism of gun owners endures. Supporting guns “has become part of what it means to be a Republican for a lot of people,” says Lacombe. “Even if the NRA were to close up shop tomorrow, that wouldn’t go away.”
Democrats and gun-control advocates like to quote polls showing broad national support for “common sense gun control,” often in majorities approaching 90%. Some experts and pollsters say these numbers obscure deeper national differences over gun rights.
A 2016 ballot initiative regarding background checks failed narrowly in Maine despite millions of dollars spent by gun safety advocates to promote it. In Nevada, a similar measure passed by a slender margin—far short of the overwhelming support gun-control advocates often cite.
Gallup found that Republicans held an advantage of four points over the Democrats in trusting gun legislation in 2017. According to Pew, the number of Americans favoring stricter gun laws (53%), has fallen slightly from 2019. According to Pew, gun sales nearly tripled between 2000 and 2019, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaco, Firearms and Explosives. There has been a significant spike in firearm sales over the past three years.
“There’s a really strong tendency for gun-control messages to considerably underperform their polling,” says Democratic pollster David Shor. “The reality is that this isn’t the winning issue that we constantly trick ourselves into thinking it is.”
This is the truth that Biden, and many other Democrats who lament the rise in gun violence, often overlook. It’s not the “gun lobby” that’s standing in the way of new gun-safety measures. It’s the voters they represent.
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