On Tuesday, the National Rifle Association released its first official response following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The statement was brief, and began by highlighting the “four million mums and dads” which comprise the group’s individual membership.What was noteworthy about the response, along with what ultimately was a bizarre, one-way “press conference” the following Friday, was not the group’s expression of sorrow for the event — which is of course what everyone feels — but rather the insinuation that the NRA speaks only on behalf of individual gun owners and enthusiasts.
The NRA’s Executive VP Wayne LaPierre appears to be going to great lengths to avoid acknowledgment of his group’s critical financial ties with the firearm and ammunition manufacturers that now comprise a good half of their much lauded sponsorship base; those that, along with some of America’s largest retail chains, have benefitted immensely from the group’s lobbying efforts on behalf of gun and assault weapons sales.
As far as the NRA has succeeded beyond any expectations in driving forward a pro-gun ownership agenda in the U.S. via its lobbying arm, they are also the first group to draw the public’s ire and blame after horrific acts of gun violence. The NRA entity that we know today, which began as a benign grassroots operation promoting rifle sports after the Civil War, now raises well over $200 million a year in funding, about half of which comes from membership dues. And yet, though the NRA has for decades been derided as the mouthpiece of gun manufacturers, the organisation did not truly head into that territory until fairly recently.
As an organisation that attracts individual members from sports enthusiasts and its purported defence of the constitutional right to bear arms, it is also subject to the ebb and flow of perceived threats to that right — ironically, its membership was subjected to a drop following the election of the Texan-forged, gun-friendly George W. Bush.
It was during this time when the NRA began to transform itself into a true lobbying entity by seeking corporate funding, often directly from gun manufacturers, such as Remington Arms Co., Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., and Sturm, Ruger & Co. The latter had announced a goal in May of 2011 to sell 1 million firearms by the end of March, donating $1 for each to the NRA. Likewise, the NRA now regularly awards recognition to large donors, lavishing companies like Winchester Ammunition with ascension within the “Ring of Freedom” corporate program.
While these efforts weren’t exactly hidden at great (any?) length, the NRA’s leadership has not been eager to see the group’s public image as a “grassroots” organisation diminished by wealthy donors.
And, to be fair, it seems pretty unlikely that many (if not most) of the NRA’s traditional members — those to which it refers as the “four million mums and dads, sons and daughters” in its message of condolence to the victims of the Newtown shooting — would be fazed by the NRA’s pivot to “corporate partners,” and a growing reliance on tiered sponsorship deals and heavy merchandising.
Supporting the NRA is, after all, supporting the view that gun ownership should be a prevalent, unfettered right in America, so why would it matter where their funding is sourced?
Since the shooting, several piercing pieces have been written on gun manufacturers and retailers, many of them concentrating on the ease of access to heavy assault weapons. One particular piece published this week by The Nation delves into how one of the weapons in question, the now infamous Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, is now on sale at about 1,700 Walmart stores nationwide, and easily acquired throughout the country at any number of large retail chains.
According to The Nation’s investigation, in April of 2011 Walmart expanded gun sales to 1,750 locations nationwide following a general slump in sales — Walmart’s executive vice president Duncan Mac Naughton told shareholders in October of this year that gun sales had become key to its rising profits. The retail giant’s gun sales are now up by 76%, and ammunition by 30%, making Walmart the biggest firearms and ammunition in America.
Earlier this year, following the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, Senator Feinstein successfully placed a hold on the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2012, legislation that would have forced states to accept concealed firearm permits by those states which issued them (legislation originally introduced by Democratic Senators Mark Begich and Joe Manchin). The move was a rare defeat for the gun rights lobby, and by any account was only possible because it came on the heels of such a high profile shooting. Similarly, immediately after the Newtown tragedy, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder suddenly opted to veto a concealed firearms reform that would have opened up formerly gun-free zones like churches and school buildings.
After the carnage of the Sandy Hook shootings, the impetus for gun regulation laws seems to have, at least for the moment, been reignited. With probable appointment to the Judiciary Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein is poised to introduce a renewed assault weapons ban to congress, and by all indications the White House is prepared to support the legislation. Yet, after spending well over a decade promoting gun ownership, and expanding its donor base directly to gun manufacturers, how will the NRA react? With its funding now inexorably tied to both the manufacture and sale of guns in the U.S., will the gun lobby simply accept a decline in access to purchase and carry?
On Friday, the NRA held a “major news announcement” regarding the Newtown shootings that did nothing but regurgitate its common talking points. In the coming months, the debate over whether to re-establish the assault weapons ban and increase gun regulation will percolate through congress, and the murmurings of K Street power lunches. Since 2011, the NRA has spent some $24 million in lobbying for favourable legislative action, a sum 66 times greater than that of the Brady Campaign (that’s 4,143 times more on campaign contributions). It seems fair to assume that NRA lobbyists will be making a lot of phone calls in the near future.