The group bills itself as the voice of America's gun owners, but it also has deep financial ties to the firearms industry.
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.
"They translate the industry's needs into less crass, less economically interested language -- into defending the home, into defending the country," Tom Diaz, the Violence Policy Center's senior policy analyst, told me in an interview. One example, he said, was concealed carry laws, which the NRA promotes as self-defense measures. As Diaz explained, letting private citizens carry their handguns in public also just happened to allow firearms manufacturers to make and market new, smaller weapons with higher calibers.
"The industry needs a veneer of respectability," he said.
All of that said, one could argue that the NRA is simply arguing for a principled, pro-gun stand which just happens to be good for gun makers as well. Very few industries are lucky enough to have a constitutional amendment that guarantees it a favorable regulatory environment. And it can be very, very difficult to separate the things that make gun owners happy from the things that make gun users happy. It's also worth pointing out that all of those corporate donations -- excluding the magazine advertising -- have been a mere drop in the bucket compared to the NRA's entire budget. The big givers might have more influence than most, but one would think that the organization's first priority would almost certainly have to be keeping its sprawling membership base content.
IT SPEAKS FOR RIGHT-WING IDEOLOGUES
Or is it to keep them frightened? In his tell-all memoir, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, former NRA operative and consultant Richard Feldman argued that the group had degenerated into "a cynical, mercenary political cult," that was "obsessed with wielding power while relentlessly squeezing contributions from its members." Manipulating the fears of impassioned gun owners helped keep their wallets open, and helped to fund the rich pay packages for executives like LaPierre, who pocketed nearly $1 million in 2010.
In an interview, Feldman, who now runs the Independent Firearms Owners Association, said that over the last 20 years, the NRA had indeed "taken on the mantle for protecting the gun industry," such as when it successfully lobbied for a 2005 law that protected firearms manufacturers from civil suits by gun makers or their families. But he said the group's staunchly anti-gun control stances also reflected the sincere priorities of its most impassioned members, including both big and small donors.
"The people who are most concerned about gun rights are the most doctrinaire and ideological in their approach to the issue," Feldman said. "As an organization you can have four million members, but that doesn't mean all members are equal. The members you have to worry about are the ones who contribute."
IT SPEAKS FOR ... ANYBODY
And there may be reasons for it to worry these days. Although it looms large in the nightmares of liberals and swing state politicians, the NRA is not, in fact, the most extreme of gun rights groups. Gun Owners for America is the sort of organization whose head is willing to openly speculate about armed revolt against the government. It's also won the devotion of high-profile conservatives like Red State editor Erick Erickson for its uncompromising stances. "I cringe when I see good conservatives with their lifetime member sticker from the NRA on the back of their cars," he wrote in 2010. "I support Gun Owners of America, which is a consistent and uncompromising defender of the Second Amendment, not a weak little girl of an organization protecting itself while throwing everyone else under the bus."
In other words, the NRA has to protect its right flank, where many of the most ardent gun owners, the ones willing to donate $25 or $1 million to keep the government at bay, reside.
So who does the NRA speak for, again? The answer is: lots of people. Hard-core gun-devotees, frightened conservatives, its own well-paid leaders, gun makers, and ammo retailers all play into the mix. It would be reductive to call it a mere corporate lobbyist. But in any event, it's clear the NRA isn't just representing your average Joe Six-Shooter.
*Yes, Bloomberg is owned by New York's famously pro-gun control mayor. I find it doubtful that he took time off from running the country's largest city to green-light this particular piece of journalism.