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.
Start with its political spending. The NRA shelled out just over $29 million on the 2020 elections—a big number, but down from more than $54 million in 2016. So far in the 2022 cycle the group has spent less than $10,000, according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics. 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.
The group’s clout is fading in other ways. NRA membership stagnated around 5 million for several years after 2013, and has steadily declined every year since 2018, according to internal documents obtained by The Reload, a publication focused on the firearms industry. By August 2021, revenue from membership dues fell more than $16 million short of what the organization had projected, according to the documents obtained by The Reload. There are also signs that the NRA’s supporters are aging. In 2019, 56% of donors to the NRA Political Victory Fund identified themselves as retired, compared to 40% in 2003, the first year this was recorded.
The NRA has been hobbled by a growing number of lawsuits for allegations that included violating campaign finance laws, diverting charitable donations, and the misuse of millions of dollars by executives. One such suit, brought by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, sought to dissolve the group altogether. As a result, the NRA attempted to declare bankruptcy, which was later blocked by a judge. (The NRA did not respond to requests for comment on 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.”
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 Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners Into a Political Force. “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.
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%. But those figures, some pollsters and experts say, obscure the deeper national divisions over gun rights.
In 2016, a ballot initiative on background checks narrowly failed in Maine even after gun-safety advocates spent millions to promote it. In Nevada, a similar measure passed by a slender margin—far short of the overwhelming support gun-control advocates often cite.
In 2017, Republicans held a four-point edge on who voters trusted with gun legislation, according to Gallup. The number of Americans who favor stricter gun laws (53%) has actually declined slightly since 2019, according to Pew. Gun sales have nearly tripled since 2000, according to a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaco, Firearms and Explosives, with a major spike in the last 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.”
Which points to the reality that Biden and other Democrats lamenting the epidemic of gun violence often ignore. 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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