How The NRA Took American Politics Hostage
A deconstructed look at the evolution of the NRA, their hold over the GOP, and why we haven’t been able to fix America’s gun problem
In 2012, after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the majority of the nation was sure that we had finally reached a breaking point when it came to the gun control debate. Regardless of partisan differences, there was no way lawmakers could sit idly by after a tragedy of such historic proportions.
And yet, as we sit reeling from another mass shooting that again targeted school-aged children, we are well aware of the failure of Republican lawmakers to enact any real, meaningful nationwide change when it comes to the issue of gun control. Over the past few decades, it has become clear that gun violence at this level is a uniquely American problem, with the U.S. racking up more public mass shootings than any other country in the world.
Across the globe, more restrictive gun measures have proven successful in lessening instances of gun violence. In fact, studies show time and time again that more guns equate to more violence — but controlled access to guns limits said violence. And while they may differ on specifics, the majority of the public favors a tightening of gun laws in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
In this divisive time, having so much support for passing controversial legislation is nearly unheard of. So why isn’t more being done?
The truth is, the National Rifle Association has spent that last few decades ensuring that certain politicians represent their interests and agenda — even when it flies in the face of the desires of the American people.
The NRA, which started as a hobbyist group mostly dedicated to marksmanship and general firearms education, is now one of the most powerful gun lobby organizations, throwing immense amounts of money into political campaigns and elections. Their campaign contributions have allowed them to influence policy in an extremely impactful way — despite remaining as a technically tax-exempt organization. One has to look no further than the inaction of the top career recipients of NRA funding to understand how this group has effectively bought certain Republican politicians.
The NRA is blocking the will of American voters and putting our lives and our children’s lives at risk. The only question that remains is how did it get this way?
Changing Political Landscapes
Around four decades ago, the country was reeling from a shift in the political landscape that would have an immense impact to this very day. The departure of rural, white Southerners from the Democratic party, combined with a rash of political assassinations laid a groundwork for potential gun legislation that worried many staunch gun advocates.
The federal government had remained relatively removed from the gun debate until the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration cracked down on certain types of guns, including machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. States took these measures even more seriously, with some, like Rhode Island and Massachusetts, electing to effectively restrict purchases of both fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
At this point, the NRA’s leadership hadn’t been very active in the political sphere, going so far as to somewhat support the push for gun control legislation. When the issue of federal gun control came up again in the late 1960s, they simmered their already limited lobbying efforts and worked with Congress and the White House to pass legislation, including the Gun Control Act of 1968. In fact, a year previously the NRA supported a statewide ban on open carry in California — but it must be noted that this bill was introduced and enacted in direct response to the activities of the Black Panther Party.
It would take less than one decade for the NRA to shift its stance from working with the federal government to vehemently opposing any form of gun control legislation.
In 1977, during the NRA’s annual convention, a group of gun rights hardliners led by a man named Harlon Carter, rebelled against the organization’s leadership and placed Carter in charge. In what is now known as the Cincinnati revolt, these actions paved the way for a new phase of the NRA’s existence — one that became increasingly paranoid and manipulative regarding the topic of gun control.
Carter placed a fellow hardliner at the head of the lobbying arm of the NRA, the Institute for Legislative Action. The ILA had been founded a few years previously, partially in response to the killing of an NRA member — who was stockpiling a large number of illegal weapons — by federal agents.
This new era of the NRA centered around one particular concept —to change the way Americans viewed the Second Amendment. Other than more recent alliances with gun manufacturers, this is arguably the most effective marketing campaign launched by the organization. It’s also one of the main reasons we lack coherent debate about the constitutional legality of gun control legislation to this very day.
(Republican politicians have also rescinded their responsibility on this matter in favor of campaign donations from the gun lobby — but more on that later).
Prior to this Second Amendment propaganda push, few journal studies or articles had been released regarding what exactly the rights enumerated by these few sentences in the Bill of Rights meant. However, after the NRA began to change their standard operating procedure, law review journals saw a marked increase in articles which promoted an individual right interpretation of the Second Amendment — i.e. the idea that citizens have a right to own guns outside of the confines of a well-regulated militia.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” — Second Amendment of the United States Constitution
Until this point, the Second Amendment wasn’t understood the way it is today. In fact, in the early 20th century, the Supreme Court had ruled that Congress could ban sawed-off shotguns — for the specific reason that the gun exhibited no use in a well-regulated militia, and was therefore unprotected by the statute set forth in the amendment.
In 2008, when the topic was brought before the Court again, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, the Court radically departed from this previous interpretation, and declared that individual citizens do, in fact, have the right to bear arms out of the context of regulated militias. An argument for understanding the judicial consequences of elections if I ever heard one…
The fear-mongering tactics that were employed by the NRA to convince the public that the government was going to take away all its citizens’ guns can best be described in this infamous, dramatic line from the organization’s former president Charlton Heston:
Since the 1970s the NRA has been successful in one of the most comprehensive marketing campaigns in modern history. With the takeover of the organization by extreme hardliners and the exploitation of the public’s perception of a Constitutional Amendment, the NRA was able to wage a propaganda war based on fear and intimidation.
Successful marketing, changing political landscapes, passionate spokespeople, and a society that had perhaps underestimated the impact scare tactics could have on the general population, all conspired to allow the NRA to take up the national stage in such a large fashion. But there was one more thing that would push them over the edge — one more ingredient that would take what used to be an educational, hobbyist group and turn it into arguably the most powerful lobbying group of our time.
Follow The Money
In the 2016 election cycle, the NRA ranked as one of the top ten outside spending groups and spent more than any other outside group to help elect Donald Trump to the presidency. The combined efforts of the NRA and the NRA-ILA reached nearly $55 million.
While the mobilization of the organization’s members and extremely effective marketing propel much of the legislative agenda promoted by the NRA, without politicians that are willing to support these policies, there would be little success in achieving such measures.
And they have been successful in blocking federal action on gun control — in a myriad of ways. As I’ve discussed before, with NRA support, Congress effectively barred the CDC from partaking in any gun violence research:
In 1997, a provision was passed, with the strong backing of the NRA, which banned the CDC from doing anything to advocate for or promote gun control. The amendment was promoted by Republican Jay Dickey of Arkansas — who called himself the Hill’s “point man for the NRA.” It stated that:
“None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
At the same time, the exact amount previously spent on gun violence research was slashed from the CDC’s budget. It’s worth noting that in recent years, Dickey has expressed his regret for the consequences of his promotion of the aforementioned provision.
The monetary contributions of the NRA go beyond straightforward campaign donations, as well. The amount given directly to politicians is actually quite limited comparatively — leading those who are against gun control to often argue that the organization doesn’t actually have measurable sway on politicians. This is, however, an incorrect assumption.
The NRA donates mass amounts to parties and political action committees — but it spends its biggest chunk of money on independent expenditures, which often take the form of campaign advertisements that aggressively attack candidates who favor gun control policies.
It’s here where the aforementioned scare tactics come into play. In the twisted world of attack ads, the NRA is a master in manipulative marketing. In one anti-Hillary Clinton video, we see a young woman waking up to the sound of an intruder in her house. As statistics swirl about the too-slow response time of emergency responders, she reaches for her gun — only to have the safe disappear while the narrator explains that Clinton is planning on taking away your only defense against evil.
These type of ads are the NRA’s bread and butter, and they have proven results. A similar attack ad was released against former Sen. Mary Landrieu of Lousiana. She lost her election.
A smaller, yet still impressive percentage of NRA spending goes to lobbying efforts. Since 1998, the organization has spent $45.9 million on federal efforts. And yet, with that figure in consideration, spokespeople for the organization continue to assert otherwise:
@zen310 NRA isn’t a “lobby group.” It’s a fellowship organization of gun owners. I can’t take you seriously on any level now that you’ve demonstrated you don’t know anything about the group your smearing. Enjoy your day.
The above tweet exists as a perfect example of how financial control and manipulative propaganda have intersected perfectly to allow the NRA to hold a vice grip over American politics.
And if we were to only focus on the direct campaign contributions made by the NRA, these donations have a clear partisan bent. As of 2016, the top 81 members of Congress with the most career NRA contributions were all Republicans.
There is one party which disproportionately aligns itself with the policies and agenda promoted by the NRA and the gun lobby. And when one explores the modern history of the GOP, they might find a familiar trajectory. It’s little coincidence that the extremist views of the NRA popularized over the last few decades by a new leadership, including CEO Wayne LaPierre, parallel the rise to power of extreme factions of the Republican Party.
During a highly viewed CNN town hall meeting between survivors of the Parkland shooting and government officials, student Cameron Kasky asked Senator Marco Rubio if he would commit to refusing any campaign contributions from the NRA. In a clear example of the inaction perpetuated by the financial manipulation enacted by the gun lobby on Republican politicians, Rubio refused to make the commitment.
@cameron_kasky goes toe-to-toe with @marcorubio “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” A kid demanding change, challenging their Senator as an equal. This is what democracy looks like. #StudentsStandUp
A Shifting Tide
It’s difficult to quantify the exact amount of impact that the National Rifle Association has had on the narrative of our country. But as mass shootings become more and more frequent — as our schools, churches, concerts, and movie theaters become warzones before our very eyes — it’s clear that the American public isn’t falling for propaganda anymore.
For the first time in a long while, the NRA no longer holds the upper hand in the culture war they created. The teen survivors of the Parkland shooting have taken to social media to vocally oppose decades of manipulation by the gun lobby and cowardly inaction by Congress. And while the NRA has spent much longer in this fight, they’ve never had to go up against people who are better at marketing than they are.
Emma Gonzalez is the future. “To every politician who is taking donations from the @NRA-shame on you!” In this powerful speech, she calls out @realDonaldTrump, @ChuckGrassley, and the @NRA. The Parkland shooting survivors are going to change the world.
According to a poll from CNN, support for stricter gun laws is at the highest level since 1993, with nearly 7 in 10 Americans supporting some form of stronger gun laws.
Public opinion, which has been the most valuable tool of the NRA since the late 1970s, is shifting. The portrayal of gun rights as a single-issue to voters is beginning to work against the gun lobby. The transparency created by the internet has made checking on whether or not your representative has taken money from the NRA as easy as checking Twitter.
And we’re beginning to see the effects of this shift. On Friday, as a result of mounting public pressure and the activism of the Parkland students, the Republican Governor of Florida broke with the NRA in order to sign new gun regulations into law. Shortly after this news was announced, the NRA filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the gun-safety bill.
Florida Gov. Rock Scott has signed a gun bill that imposes a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, raises the minimum age for purchasing those weapons to 21, and bans the possession of bump stocks. https://t.co/YGlaCcvhkR
They say the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is one. I’d say the second step is recognizing how that problem got so powerful. For decades, America has been unable to tamper the gun violence which plagues our nation because of the impressive tactical control and power of the NRA.
For the first time, however, voters might be able to do something about that.