For an organization that looms so large over American politics, it's oddly difficult to say what the National Rifle Association really is, or who it represents. The group purports to have four-million members and touts itself as the populist defender of American gun rights. Yet, as I wrote last month, it has also received millions of dollars in donations from the firearms industry over recent years, some of which have been tied directly to gun and ammo sales.
The left-wing muckrakers at Mother Jones are out with a piece today that strikes directly at this question of whether the NRA is truly a grassroots force, a glorified corporate front, or something in-between. The magazine reports that George Kollitides II, CEO of the country's largest gun manufacturer, the Freedom Group, sits on one of the organization's most influential internal leadership bodies, known as the Nominating Committee. Freedom Group is the parent company of such firearms makers as Bushmaster, producer of the wildly popular rifle used in the Newtown massacre, and Remington, one of the oldest names in the arms business. And so it seems the gun industry doesn't merely influence the NRA via its largesse, but that one of its most high-profile executives actually helps steer it from the inside.
While the nine-seat Nominating Committee doesn't call the shots at the NRA, it does more or less get to decide who does. The body picks candidates for the NRA's 76-member board of directors, which in turn oversees the groups staff and more than $200 million budget. The directors are technically elected by the NRA's rank-and-file members, who can also petition to nominate candidates. But Mother Jones reports that 71 percent of the current board -- a group that includes such notables as rocker Ted Nugent, Utah Jazz basketball great Karl Malone, actor/mustache Tom Selleck, and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist -- were either nominated,endorsed, or selected by the Nominating Committee. .
Kollitides' leadership role would certainly seem to fit that fact pattern that suggets corporate interests, and not the desires of its grassroots, drive much of the modern NRA's policy agenda. Along with its reliance on industry money, the NRA has successfully lobbied to shield gun manufacturers from potentially crippling lawsuits. At the time of that effort, then-president Charlton Heston declared before a crowd of industry honchos that, "Your fight has become our fight." Meanwhile, survey evidence suggests that the NRA takes a much harder line against gun control than most of its own membership. As for Kollitides, Mother Jones reports that he was appointed to the nominating committee only after mounting several failed bids to be elected to the larger board of directors. In short, when the rank-and-file blanched at putting a gun exec in leadership, the higher-ups seem to have intervened.
And yet, the corporate-front theory is still probably too simplistic. As the Washington Post reported Sunday, the NRA was transformed from a a mainstream sportsman's association into a hard-core anti-gun control lobby in the late 1970s after its most radical members rebelled and booted the their long-time leadership. Ever since then, the group's energetic right flank has pressed its leadership to take ever-more uncompromising policy stances, particularly when the stakes were highest. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who horrified many with his post Sandyhook press conference advocating more armed guards in schools, was himself elevated to current role during the legislative battle to stop the Brady Bill, a period when the NRA membership to elected a host of 2nd amendment absolutists to its board of directors.
It's very hard to disentagle the interests of the gun industry from the views of gun rights purists. But ultimately, it may not be necessary either. Polling data suggests that the public at large is much more agreeable to gun control today than the NRA itself. No matter who it specifically represents, its views appear to be solidly out of the mainstream.