Even after the impassioned response to the school shooting in February in Parkland, Florida, the NRA is not struggling with popularity or support: The group’s membership has reportedly risen in recent months. In March, its political-victory fund raised the most money in the course of a single month that it has in 15 years, bringing in a total of nearly $2.4 million.
Indeed, as the NRA hosts its national convention this weekend in Dallas, the organization continues to be beloved by millions of Americans—and shows few signs of changing its messaging. The convention, now in its 147th year, has reportedly drawn around 80,000 attendees, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the 10,000-seat auditorium where President Trump spoke there Friday, his fourth year speaking at the convention.
Parkland’s influence on the weekend, though, is still subtly perceptible. The gun-control movement that gained momentum in the wake of the February school shooting will be out in force in Dallas, as there are multiple protests, a “die-in,” and advocacy training planned to coincide with the convention.
For thousands of Americans, though, the event is effectively the same as it’s always been: a chance to celebrate gun rights, or just to visit the trade show and scope out new products. In fact, according to The Washington Post, many are arriving at the convention as passionate as ever, guided by the sense that their cause is under attack by gun-control advocates and the media. The convention is a reminder of the daily role the NRA plays in the lives of many Americans, especially young people, whose involvement with the organization helps its long-term stability. (The NRA did not immediately respond to my request for comment on this story.)
Indeed, a recent AP report, for instance, found that the NRA allocated over $7 million between 2010 and 2016 to fund programs at hundreds of schools, from rifle teams to agriculture clubs. And in some cities and states, the NRA’s efforts to engage Americans can look a lot like the community programming of, say, a YMCA or a religious organization. The NRA has a robust set of popular youth programs, some of which directly pertain to guns, like shooting camps, but others that are a little further afield, like a wildlife art contest and a women’s wildlife-management scholarship.
One of the NRA’s more-popular teen programs is the Youth Education Summit, a weeklong educational program in Washington, D.C., for teens who have excelled in academics and community involvement. The teens visit monuments and memorials to, as the NRA’s blog puts it, “learn the significance of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and the importance of being an active citizen,” and they spend time at the NRA Headquarters to learn about “community outreach, youth programs, and political activism.” They also visit the NRA National Firearms Museum. College scholarships will be available to some of the students who prove themselves skilled leaders during the course of the week.
What draws teens to the program? In a testimony on the NRA’s website, one teen from Wisconsin whose hobby is competitive shooting reflected in 2017: “I thought the hardest part about [Youth Education Summit] week would be being away from my shotgun. But, in reality, leaving all the wonderful people who changed my life for the better was much harder.” Another student left with strengthened resolve to join the military.
Still others left with takeaways about issues aside from guns: “Coming from a house where everything is organic and all natural, I couldn’t believe that so many participants found no problem with GMOs,” a student wrote in an essay about engaging with diversity of thought at the summit. One former participant I corresponded with emphasized how the summit made him a better public speaker.
In the short term, the NRA is unlikely to significantly adapt its youth programming based on the rising levels of gun-control activism among young people. This underscores a point that is frequently lost in media coverage of the NRA, which tends to look at the organization through the lens of a political debate, while overlooking the full range of the NRA's programming: For many young people, life is going on as usual, and the NRA is a friendly, even apolitical-seeming, force in it.