The National Rifle Association is one of the most politically active organizations in the United States. With chapters in every state and various other interest groups that support them, they have built a political empire that bullies candidates into adopting their positions rather than supporting any sort of gun control agenda. The NRA supports unregulated purchasing of guns, and unlimited carrying.While they have well nuanced arguments in favor of many of their positions, they have also built a political apparatus that undermines democracy by controlling the outcomes of many elections and the legislative agenda of many states when it comes to gun control, hunting and the rights of outdoorsmen.
Elections and Lobbying
From a lobbying perspective, the NRA is deadly efficient. They tend to utilize attack ads in such a way that not only can they sway elections in favor of one candidate; in certain areas of the nation they can oust an incumbent for a single wrong vote. Take Debra Maggert, for example. She sported an A+ rating from the NRA as a legislature in Tennessee. Then a bill came up that would have allowed citizens to keep their guns in a parked vehicle, no matter where it was (schools, courthouses, etc.). Based on her no vote on this single piece of legislation, the NRA ruined her political career. They posted billboards with her face next to Barack Obama’s that said “Rep. Debra Maggert says she supports your gun rights, of course, he says the same thing.” They also sent out attack ads that said “Debra Maggert wants to shred your second amendment rights”. Their ability to outspend local politicians means that the NRA enjoys tremendous backing from smaller lawmakers, this power has also effectively found its way to the federal legislative level. Furthermore, the fact that they can determine the outcome of an election in many areas of the nation places them in a position to affect policy without even making a threat to a candidate. In NRA heavy states, politicians know that they must bend to the will of the NRA or be demolished during election season.
This is part of the reason why the NRA spent almost $3.5 million on lobbying efforts in 2013 alone. Since 1998 they have spend over $30 million. They also spent $250,000 on federal congressional campaigns alone, making 154 campaign contributions, with only 6 going to democrats. Of those democrats, none would be considered particularly liberal – all of them are from conservative states like Utah and Georgia. Their top six contributions to organizations are also extremely partisan, with every single one being an organization to elect republican candidates.
Empowering individuals and influencing elections
The issues seem to have extended beyond just gun control. “Protecting second amendment rights” is a siren call, and an ode to “traditional American values.” Many members of the NRA are almost militant in their support for firearm availability and use the issue to point out a government that is ever-expanding. It’s a slippery-slope too, because if the government can take your guns, what else can they take?
It is because of this issue that the NRA seems to be able to gather a strong grassroots following that they are still able to largely control the message of. By educating supporters on constitutional issues and mobilizing them when important legislation is up for a vote, the NRA is able to amplify its voice in the political process. Not only are they able to effectively mobilize, they are also effective at fighting political powers. As one NRA volunteer said when called by an NRA lobbyist to testify against gun legislation in his state, “I was able to refute, point by point, 9 aspects of a proposed state law which showed it was unconstitutional and only aimed at law abiding gun owners. I could tell I was successful when I saw how angry my own representative was with me. The key is, Amy, we know the law better than the legislators”.
In Alaska, Representative Mark Begich wanted to pass gun control legislation after the Sandy Hooke tragedy. Instead of gaining support for common sense legislation, the NRA helped mobilize a huge effort where members “warned him against voting for expanded background checks, to stop violating “our gun rights,” and to break with the Democratic Party or face the consequences in the next election”.
1994 was a watershed for Republicans, one that can almost singlehandedly be attributed to NRA victories. Bill Clinton passed a 10 year assault weapons ban, and afterward Republicans in pro- NRA states DEMOLISHED democratic candidates. Clinton would write in his biography that “They beat both Speaker Tom Foley and Jack Brooks, two of the ablest members of Congress, who had warned me this would happen. . . . The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you’re out”.
Not only does the NRA educate its members so that they are able to effectively lobby to legislatures (thereby exponentially increasing their lobbying power), their ability to turn a single issue into an argument over ideals has made gun control legislation even more important to certain demographics.
The electoral process is weakened whenever a single issue lobby can completely control the elections of a large amount of representatives (recognizing that single issue lobbyists are different from single issue voters). This means that other important issues are ignored based on the prima facie appeal of one cause. While it sparks an important debate over state rights vs. federal rights, it also calls into question just how democratic the system is when the only issue that matters is one that doesn’t have a large scale economic and social impact in most cases.
Usually gun control legislation is limited to background checks for purchases, limiting online purchases, limiting assault rifle use and better tracking the ownership of guns. All of these issues when polled on their own are things that the general public is in favor of, but when an issue-advocacy group can so effectively transform it from “gun control” to “an attack on constitutional rights” the narrative of the discussion is changed. They frequently straw man opponents, framing the argument so that anyone in control of any kind of gun control legislation is “anti-second amendment” or “attacking second amendment rights.”
Overall, the NRA has been extremely successful at creating a rhetorical regime which dictates the possibility of reasonable gun control legislation. It frames gun control as a slippery slope. An example from a recent NRA publication: “Get the public to blame the ‘power’ of the AR now, and later on they’ll accept the same argument against other semi-autos, and then against all semi-autos, and then against all pump-actions, and then against all fill-in-the-blank.”