The mass shooting in Virginia last week has thrown light on the key role of the National Rifle Association (NRA). What is it?
Is there a call for tighter gun laws? Yes. The rate of mass shootings in the US – 59 people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting in 2017; 17 were killed in the Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018; 12 died in the massacre in Virginia Beach last week – has accelerated markedly since the turn of the century. This has prompted widespread calls for tougher laws on gun control. For Democrats it’s now a regular part of the policy agenda: presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made it her key pitch at last week’s Democratic convention. And polls consistently show high support for such a move. In early 2018, a Politico poll showed 88% of Americans are in favour of universal background checks on those buying firearms; 81% think a person should be 21 before buying a gun; 68% support a full ban on assault-style weapons. Yet attempts to reform the gun laws have repeatedly been blocked. Why? One generally offered explanation is the power of the NRA.
Where did the NRA come from? It was founded in New York in 1871 by two Civil War veterans, who aimed primarily to improve US soldiers’ shooting skills. (An official study found Union troops fired 1,000 rounds for every bullet that struck a Confederate soldier.) Its original mission focused on marksmanship, hunting and conservation; there was no mention of protecting the Second Amendment right to bear arms (see box). Indeed, for nearly a century, the NRA actively lobbied for gun control, helping to write the firearms acts of 1934 and 1938, the first federal gun laws, which regulated machine guns in response to the gangster violence of the era.
How long did that position last? It endured through the 1960s, when assassinations and street violence rocked the nation. After it emerged that Lee Harvey Oswald had used a rifle bought via an ad in the NRA’s magazine, American Rifleman, to shoot John F. Kennedy, the NRA backed the banning of mail-order sales. After the killings of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which imposed restrictions on shipping guns across state lines. There were rumblings of rebellion inside the NRA, which had helped block attempts to include a national gun register and a rule requiring all gun owners to hold a licence. But ultimately, it backed the act, describing it as “one that the sportsmen of America can live with”.
When did it change its stance? In 1971, federal agents shot and paralysed long-time NRA member Kenyon Ballew during a raid on his home in Maryland. That caused a surge of anti-government sentiment and NRA hardliners became impatient with its “soft” stance on resisting gun control. Things came to a head in 1977 at its annual meeting in Ohio, an episode known in NRA lore as the “Revolt at Cincinnati”, when gun rights radicals ousted the moderate leadership. The new executive vice-president, Harlon Carter, who had served time for shooting dead a Mexican teenager, spelt out the new approach: “No compromise. No gun legislation.” The NRA, he said, would become “so strong” that “no politician in America, mindful of his political career, would want to challenge our legitimate goals”.
Did the plan work? Very well. The NRA has around five million members, and a legendary ability to mobilise them. As Bill Clinton’s adviser George Stephanopoulos ruefully admitted: “They’re good citizens. They call their congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.” It also gives direct campaign donations to its chosen political candidates, usually Republicans. The amounts given are peanuts compared with donations by the pharmaceutical or insurance lobbies, but the money is carefully targeted on hotly contested seats. A recent CNN study found that 307 of 535 members of Congress had received direct or indirect support from the NRA. And it has a strong record of successfully opposing gun control laws – for instance, the renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004 – and even limited funding for federal research into gun violence.
How has the NRA reacted to mass shootings? Although it usually keeps quiet in the immediate aftermath, its militancy actually tends to rise up a gear – as each shooting raises the possibility of new legislation. In 2000, a year after the Columbine massacre, Charlton Heston, then the NRA president, vowed at its annual convention never to give up his gun, unless it was pulled “from my cold, dead hands” – a phrase that became the group’s rallying cry. A week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, NRA vice-president Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards for every school, declaring: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Can it be opposed effectively? For the first time, a growing, well-funded nationwide movement – Everytown for Gun Safety, financed by the billionaire Michael Bloomberg – has arisen to counter the NRA. The House of Representatives is now controlled by Democrats, many of whom ran on gun control platforms; and political pressure has prompted Avis, Hertz and Delta Air Lines, among others, to end partnerships with the NRA. Polls suggest attitudes to the NRA are becoming less favourable. And the organisation itself has been riven with dissension following an exposé in the New Yorker last month, which revealed a culture of “secrecy and greed”, with NRA execs handing themselves six-figure salaries and lavish benefits. Even so, it remains a force to be reckoned with. Donald Trump – the ninth president to be an NRA member – promised its members after his election in 2016: “You came through for me and I am going to come through for you.” So far, he has been as good as his word.