The National Rifle Association’s Lobbying Arm: The Behemoth On Capitol Hill May Finally Meet Its Match

In the wake of the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, the tragedy sparked a fervent national movement: just over a month later, over 200,000 people attended the March for our Lives protest in DC, with thousands of others participating in over 800 satellite protests around the world. Protesters came equipped with powerful messages on elaborate posters, such as “Arms are for hugging” and “The scariest thing in school should be my grades.” Scattered amongst the calls for the principles of peace and safety, however, were also posters with more accusatory, antagonistic messages, such as “Stop taking NRA money!” and “If I die in a school shooting, drop my body at the NRA.” This vilification of the NRA has become commonplace in the gun control movement. A lobbying and grassroots behemoth, the NRA is known for championing gun rights and for its deep pocketbook that is so instrumental in electing members of Congress and presidential candidates, as well as in influencing their decisions once they take office. What exactly is this organization, and how did it become so influential in politics?

Founded in 1871, the National Rifle Association was established by two former Union officers who wanted to educate citizens on marksmanship after seeing poor shooting abilities among Civil War recruits. Primarily engaged in informing citizens on safe and effective use of guns for the first half of the 20th century, it developed into a robust political and financial organization in the 1970s due to a variety of factors. For one, in 1971, agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms killed an NRA member who had several illegal weapons in his possession, which infuriated much of the NRA membership and administration, causing a rift in the traditional structure. Another important development was the shift of Southern rural conservatives from the Democratic Party. As this segment of the population’s political and ideological leanings were in the midst of dealignment, the NRA appealed to the cohort to fuse Second Amendment rights with conservative principles and with Republican ideals of liberty, right to privacy, and freedom from regulation. They appealed to make gun rights an essential ideology of the new conservative coalition before the conservative agenda was settled. Further, through the NRA’s incentive of grassroots mobilization, many previously disillusioned voters felt like active members in democratic processes again. The third and perhaps most disruptive change to the organization in the 1970s was the addition of the group’s first lobbying organ, the Institute for Legislative Action, in 1975. Harlton Carter, as the leader, envisioned that the NRA’s lobbying arm would be “so strong and so dedicated that no politician in America, mindful of his political career, would want to challenge our legitimate goals.” Under his leadership and beyond, the norm became opposition to all forms of gun control and aggressive lobbying for gun owners’ rights in Congress and state legislatures.

The organization today boasts nearly 5 million members, who enjoy member benefits ranging from a wine club to sporting events and life insurance, a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status, widely circulated magazines, and a lobbying arm to promote its interests. The NRA has had an instrumental impact on the election of Congressional and presidential candidates and on the passage of gun control legislation - or rather, the lack thereof. In the 2016 election, Trump received $969,138 from gun rights interest groups, and Ted Cruz received $518,272. Additionally, the NRA has given about $23 million to candidates, parties, and outside spending groups since 1989. Meanwhile, gun control interests have given only $4.3 million since 1989. In 2017 alone, the NRA by itself spent $5.1 million in lobbying, while all other gun control groups gave only $1.9 million. The lobbying and campaign financing efforts of the NRA has undoubtedly had an effect on national gun control legislation. For one, the last national gun control legislation, an assault weapons ban, was passed in 1994 and expired in 2004. Further, nearly all of the 46 senators who voted against the 2013 Manchin-Toomey Bill, which would have required background checks in all commercial gun sales, had received sizable campaign contributions from the NRA.

The Parkland shooting marked the 30th mass shooting in the first 45 days of 2018. This alarming rate needs to be curbed, and the most effective means is through the passage of preventative gun control reform in Congress. Many NRA members would support comprehensive gun control reform, and by no means do NRA members think that one’s liberty to possess a firearm outweighs the right of children to feel safe in schools. That being said, it is important to separate the NRA members from the NRA lobbying organ on Capitol Hill. NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action is adroit at getting candidates to office and gun rights legislation to a vote, and measures such as the NRA’s candidate report cards are effective at getting their members to the polls. In order for gun control groups to match the prowess of the NRA, they need to encourage grassroots mobilization while incentivizing with a powerful lobbying machine of their own. Gun control interests such as Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety and his Independence USA PAC are increasingly providing campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. Further, the March for our Lives movement has quickly catalyzed the development of a national community in support of gun control with slogans like “We call BS!” as their rallying cry. The NRA’s lobbying arm has championed the gun rights movement, and as the national gun control movement continues to take wind, it appears that gun control interests will adopt the policy of fighting fire with fire. Capitol Hill will increasingly become a battleground where both interests must duel for control.