From Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, you can drive a narrow, two-lane road to Washington Avenue, cross the highway, and arrive about five minutes later at the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the nation’s “other” gun lobby. You’ve likely never heard of the NSSF—they’ve kept a lower public profile than the National Rifle Association, but they’ve been quietly shaping American gun culture for more than half a century. Now, they’ve begun to play a much more influential role in politics.
Every year from 1998 through 2010, the NRA spent at least ten times more than the NSSF on direct lobbying. Today those numbers are converging—the NRA has spent $1.7 million so far in 2013, compared to $1.1 million spent by the NSSF, mostly in efforts to loosen state requirements for concealed carry permits. The NRA still boasts the political muscle to sway the outcome of major legislation, but the big gun lobby’s intervention is conspicuous and subject to ridicule, and an NRA campaign contribution can sometimes become a political liability—in a 2013 PPP poll, 39% of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate backed by the NRA, whereas only 26% said they’d be more likely to. This April, when Senator Mitch McConnell (the NRA’s single biggest recipient of campaign contributions) used procedural tactics to block an expanded background check bill, NRA Board member Adolphous Busch publicly resigned from the organization, saying the group “clearly places priority on the needs of gun and ammunition manufacturers while disregarding the opinions of [its] 4 million individual members.”
The NSSF has no such conflicting constituencies—its 8000 members are gun and ammunition manufacturers and dealers. Before accepting the chief executive position at the NSSF, Steve Sanetti was President of gunmaker Sturm, Ruger, & Co. for 28 years. Now he hosts all the big manufacturers at the annual SHOT show (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade show), the world’s biggest gun show, which is owned and managed by the NSSF. The show fills more than 630,000 square feet of exhibition space, and attendance is limited to trade professionals—among the 62,000 attendees are buyers for commercial sporting goods stores and military or law enforcement agencies. This is where the latest products are unveiled from big names such as Winchester, Remington, Ruger, Glock, and Smith & Wesson, as well as many aspiring upstarts. Endless racks bristle with every variant of the AR-15 rifle, now all rebranded “modern sporting rifles” through an NSSF marketing campaign which warns “if someone calls an AR-15-style rifle an ‘assault weapon,’ he or she either supports banning these firearms or does not understand their function and sporting use, or both. Please correct them.”
On the trade floor you’ll also find everything from thermal imaging scopes to long-range sniper rifles to military submachine guns, often modeled by “booth babes” in low-cut tops, surrounded by flashy video displays—it’s the Stark Expo of the Ironman movies, minus Robert Downey, Jr. Extensive media coverage ensures that gun enthusiasts at home can keep up with the daily press conferences and product releases.
The enormous scale of the SHOT show (which ranks among the 25 largest trade shows of any kind in the US) is a reminder that guns are a big business, and the NSSF reinforces that notion with several publications touting the economic impact of their industry. Their latest report claims that “companies that sell firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment employ as many as 99,820… and generate an additional 120,310 jobs in supplier and ancillary industries.” The NSSF claims that the hunting and shooting industries contribute $33 billion to the U.S. economy each year. (Meanwhile, the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation estimates the annual economic costs of gun violence at $174 billion.) This summer, NSSF Senior Vice President Larry Keane wielded those big numbers to cudgel state Democratic leaders in Connecticut for having passed new gun control laws in April, on the heels of the December Sandy Hook shooting. “As major contributors to the state's economy, we find it unacceptable for lawmakers to propose banning our products and hindering the ability of Connecticut companies to grow their businesses, create more good-paying manufacturing jobs, and contribute hundreds of millions in taxes," Keane wrote. In the same letter, he withdrew NSSF support for a proposed state park on the original site of the Colt gun factory, calling state officials hypocrites for supporting both the park and new gun laws.
Historically, the NSSF has cultivated close—though sometimes controversial—relationships with state and national parks systems. Last year, NSSF Director of Public Relations Patrick Rothwell lobbied in support of the Sportsman’s Act of 2012, which included a number of provisions regarding conservation of public lands, access and fees for hunters, and a clause that would have exempted ammunition from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ecologists objected, saying the lead bullets and chemicals in gunpowder are dangerous to certain habitats. Faced with opposition on both budgetary and environmental grounds, the bill ultimately failed.
The NSSF hasn’t always been at odds with the EPA. In 1970, when the nation celebrated the very first Earth Day and Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order, the NSSF began to lobby Congress to enact a National Hunting and Fishing Day, which promoted the notion of hunter as conservationist. Two years later, when Nixon signed the proclamation of National Hunting and Fishing Day, he urged “all citizens to join with our outdoor sportsmen in the wise use of our natural resources and in insuring the proper management for the benefit of future generations.” This PR for the gun industry came at a good time—the number of gun homicides in the U.S. had more than doubled over the course of the preceding decade.