Millions of Americans hold their guns sacred. And their church is the NRA. Three days after an 18-year-old shot 21 people in Uvalde, Texas, the association invites you to its annual meeting. A look at the (still) most powerful gun lobby in the country.
In the United States, there are 120 firearms for every 100 citizens. 40 percent of all firearms in the world are in the US – and the country accounts for only 4 percent of the global population. According to the CDC, 20,000 people were shot here in 2020, more than 50 a day. The FBI counted 61 rampages in the past year alone, about one every six days. Firearms were the number one cause of death for children and young people, ahead of traffic accidents.
All this is nothing new. But the rampage in Uvalde, Texas has – once again – fueled the debate about stricter gun laws in the USA. It is more than questionable whether anything will actually change in the end. According to a survey for almost ten years, more than half of all Americans have been in favor of tougher regulations. In the past, numerous high-ranking politicians have spoken out in favor of putting an end to the almost uncontrolled armament in many states – mostly also after bloody killing sprees. But they failed.
Starting this Friday, three days after an 18-year-old shot and killed 21 people in the same state, the NRA in Texas is hosting its annual meeting. In addition to ex-President Donald Trump, other prominent Republicans are also on the list of speakers in Houston.
Millions of Americans hold their guns sacred. And the NRA is their church. A look at the country’s most powerful gun lobby.
What is the NRA?
NRA stands for National Rifle Association. According to their own statements, the organization was founded in 1871 by two Civil War veterans with the aim of promoting and supporting “gun shooting on a scientific basis”. Today, the club is said to have nearly five million members (although analysts estimate far fewer), with more than 125,000 NRA-certified instructors teaching around one million Americans annually how to use firearms.
But the training has long been of secondary importance. More importantly, the NRA sees itself as a “leading defender of Second Amendment rights.” In other words, the NRA is the most influential gun lobby in the United States. Since 1975, according to the BBC, the NRA has sought political influence through its lobbying organization, the Institute for Legislative Action. With the “Political Action Committee” (PAC) founded two years later, the NRA cobbled together campaign funds for gun-friendly politicians (almost exclusively Republicans) and targeted politicians who advocate stricter regulations. The NRA also “grades” US legislators on their stance on gun issues – effectively making voting recommendations to their members.
How much money does the NRA spend?
In 2020, according to the BBC, the NRA spent around $250 million – far more than all other comparable clubs in the country combined. The majority of the budget, however, flows into the operation of shooting ranges and training programs. Last year, the NRA spent $3.3 million lobbying. However, the BBC notes, these are only the official figures. How much money is distributed to politicians via the PAC is difficult to say.
What does the Second Amendment mean?
The main argument of the NRA is the second amendment of the US constitution. Literally it reads: “Since a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to possess and bear arms must not be infringed.” Now, that thought dates back to the 18th century, when the United States was largely undeveloped wilderness and citizens lived in widely separated settlements. The firearms of this era can also hardly be compared with today’s fully automatic assault rifles. However, the law remained unchanged.
Even if gun lobbies like the NRA insist on the clarity of the amendment, its interpretation is very much discussed. Basically, legal scholars ask themselves whether the Second Amendment of 1791 only guarantees militia organizations such as the National Guard or private individuals the right to carry a weapon. The basic idea, write law professors Nelson Lund and Adam Winkler in an article for the National Constitution Center, was the view of the state’s founders that the population must be able to rebel against a tyrannical government if the worst came to the worst. But these militias are now integrated into the federal structure of the federal government – in the event of a revolution, an armed population no longer has a chance of overthrowing the rulers.
What are the NRA’s positions?
Based on the second amendment to the constitution, the NRA sees it as its core task to secure the right of all Americans to bear arms. In this sense, the NRA is vehemently opposed to any form of gun control. Their argument: Weapons make the country safer – regardless of all empirical evidence to the contrary. Also with regard to school shootings, the British “Independent” reports, the association insists on this point of view. Aside from the sometimes shadowy political influence, NRA spokesmen regularly appear on television, especially after mass shootings, where they explain, among other things, that the entertainment industry is the real culprit for gun violence. According to the BBC, the NRA also worked to ensure that firearms confiscated by the police are resold – after all, destroying them is a waste. In addition, the association fights for the right of citizens not only to own guns, but also to be allowed to carry them openly on the street.
Paradoxically, according to the Independent, the organization actually advocated control of guns and their owners up until the late 1960s. After the assassination of US President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the outbreak of civil unrest, the US government restricted the interstate sale of weapons. Only with the ensuing politicization of the gun debate did the NRA become the lobby organization it is today. Thus, the NRA has evolved into an association that sells gun ownership not just as a right, but as a patriotic lifestyle.
Is the NRA losing power?
On paper, the NRA may still be one of the most influential interest groups in the country. But their triumph could soon be over. As the “New York Times” wrote in April 2019, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre (who has full powers of attorney as CEO) admitted to having bankrupted the association. The NRA’s lobbying apparatus has been severely weakened, having lost more than $100 million in litigation.
As the “Washington Post” reports in a recent article, according to internal documents, the NRA had to cut its spending on weapons training by 43 percent in 2020; At the beginning of 2021, she reduced her number of employees by more than a third. The NRA’s increasing loss of power, not least due to internal disputes, has created scope for other, far more extreme organizations. “The NRA is doing nothing across the country; all of their employees have hired a lawyer and are fighting among themselves,” gun lobbyist Dudley Brown told the US newspaper. Brown himself is president of the rival organization National Association for Gun Rights – which he says is getting richer and wealthier.
For decades, Republican candidates have depended on the monetary and political boon of the NRA. But the power of the association depends on the goodwill of its base – and the NRA no longer goes far enough, it has become too willing to compromise. According to the Washington Post, the NRA’s grading of candidates is no longer a guarantee of votes either. The increasing loss of importance of the NRA should therefore not be misunderstood as a hope that reason will set in, but rather as a harbinger of radicalization.
After the Texas massacre, US President Joe Biden said, “As a nation, we have to ask ourselves when in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby.”
Sources: BBC; NRA; “National Constitution Center”; “The Independent”; “New York Times”; “Washington Post”; with material from the dpa news agency