Whom Does the NRA Really Speak For?

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The group bills itself as the voice of America's gun owners, but it also has deep financial ties to the firearms industry. 

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(Reuters)

The National Rifle Association has gone radio silent in the immediate wake of the Newtown massacre. But the country's most powerful gun-lobbying group will undoubtedly make its voice heard in the weeks ahead as Congress considers whether or not to impose new curbs on firearms.

So it's worth asking whom, exactly, the NRA speaks for: America's gun owners, or its gun makers? 

It's far from obvious. The group bills itself as the 140-year-old voice of the gun-loving grassroots -- the deer hunters, sport shooters, and self-defense-minded 2nd Amendment devotees who woud kindly like the government to keep its hands off their Glocks and AR-15s. But the modern NRA's hard-line political stances, which often seem out of step even with the majority of gun-owners, and its deepening industry ties have led some to argue that the group is little more than a corporate lobbyist dressed up in woodsy camouflage. 

They "started out as a grassroots organization and became an industry organization," William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University, told Bloomberg in January.  

So which is it really? Do they represent Joe Six-Shooter or the good folks at Bushmaster, Browning, and Smith & Wesson? The messy truth is, as you might imagine, somewhere in-between. 

IT SPEAKS FOR JOE SIX-SHOOTER

The gun industry does have an official trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (which, in a grimly ironic twist, is actually based in Newtown). But it's relatively small and has a low public profile. The NRA, by contrast, is lavishly funded, wildly influential, and purportedly independent. On the web page for its "Eddie Eagle" gun safety program, the group assures readers that it is not a trade organization, or "affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition." Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre likes to claim that the group's four million members "represent the 100 million law-abiding Americans who own firearms." 

Those membership rolls are also the NRA's financial backbone. According to its public tax returns, the group raked in $228 million worth of revenue in 2010. That included about $106 million from membership dues and fees alone, along with about $18 million from educational services. It made another $20.9 million by selling advertising in its publications, such as American Rifleman and American Hunter, largely to gun companies looking to market their gear (despite all those ad buys, the titles still appear to run at a loss).  

IT SPEAKS FOR GUN MAKERS

But membership fees don't pay the NRA's bills alone. In recent years, the group has become more aggressive about seeking donations, both from individuals and corporations, and that in turn has led it to become more deeply entwined with the gun industry. In 2010, it received $71 million in contributions, up from $46.3 million in 2004. Some of that money came from small-time donors, who've received a barrage of fundraising appeals warning of President Obama's imminent plot to gut the Second Amendment and confiscate Americans' firearms. But around 2005, the group began systematically reaching out to its richest members for bigger checks through its "Ring of Freedom" program, which also sought to corral corporate donors. Between then and 2011, the Violence Policy Center estimates that the firearms industry donated as much as $38.9 million to the NRA's coffers. The givers include 22 different gun makers, including famous names like Smith & Wesson, Beretta USA, SIGARMS, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. that also manufacture so-called assault weapons.  

Some of that funding has given the NRA a direct stake in gun and ammo sales. As Bloomberg noted in its January article, Sturm, Ruger & Co. launched a campaign to sell one million guns, and promised to donate $1 of each purchase to the group. Since 1992, MidWay USA, which retails gun supplies including ammo and controversial high-capacity magazines, has allowed its customers to round up each of their online and mail orders to the nearest dollar, and automatically donate the extra to the NRA. Together with other companies that have joined the effort, MidWay has helped collect more than $9 million for NRA. MidWay's owner, Larry Pottfield, also happens to be the the group's largest individual donor. 

These connections have fueled the theory among some gun-control advocates that the NRA is just another corporate front. That might theoretically explain why the group has opposed  politically popular measures such as requiring background checks at gun shows and banning sales to people on the terrorist watch list, proposals that even its own members have been found to support. For gun makers, the fewer rules, the better. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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