So How Is the NRA Doing, Really?

Membership is up, they tell us. People are giving more than usual, they say. We'll be back on Friday, they promised. But what's the truth about America's most powerful interest group after the massacre in Newtown?

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Membership is up, they tell us. People are giving more than usual, they say. We'll be back on Friday, they promised. But what's the truth about the National Rifle Association, supposedly America's most powerful interest group, after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut?

It's customary for the gun lobby to take these things slow, but the NRA finally broke its self-imposed silence on Tuesday, four and a half days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, this time promising "meaningful contributions" that its leaders, presumably, will outline at a Friday press conference in Washington. Since then, a series of leaks from inside the organization have sought to bolster the NRA's resilience, even as the president has acknowledged that "a discussion has reemerged as to what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future." So what's the NRA to do? It is a dilemma stretching from the halls of Congress to the core of the NRA's down-home proponents, one that the group's CEO, Wayne LaPierre, will seek to explain when he appears on Meet The Press this Sunday — something 31 pro gun-rights Senators declined to do last week.

Make no mistake, the National Rifle Association is on the offensive, as would any interest group facing a conflict that directly impacts its livelihood. But just how desperate is the NRA?

Politics: Riding a New Wave, Even Before Newtown

Make no mistake: The NRA has and needs Democratic allies — reaching across the aisle helped it transform from something closer to the AAA driving group into the nation's largest lobbying collective. Those friends simply turned the tide on close, controversial votes, and the NRA wasn't afraid to give them some money. But in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, gun control may be Topic A in Washington, with Democrats rallying behind the president for new legislation. House Republicans won't exactly fall in line with that, but as The Washington Post's Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger outline today, the NRA was having trouble with its center-left friends well before the newfound debate.

"I worry the NRA has become a captive of the Republican Party at a time that it needs Democratic votes," the NRA top-rated Texas Rep. Gene Green tells the Post. "In the long run it will be weakened."

There is a legion of Democrats with high ratings from the NRA (The New York Times has a great graphic), but you need look no further than B-rated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose recent speech on the Senate floor pressed for a fresh take in light of Newtown, to see that the lobby's most influential friends on the other side might not be even half-decent friends anymore. Slate's Dave Weigel wrote:

The people who want action and stirring words right now probably weren't satisfied with this. But consider the source. Reid, in his march to power, was one of the Democrats ducking fights on guns to up his NRA rating. He didn't support extending the assault weapons ban in 2004; the NRA endorsed him for re-election.

The NRA has held up a weapons band before, as has been much discussed. But with Obama promising action and Senators like Diane Feinstein planning to introduce new legislation that Americans support, the NRA will need all the Democratic votes it can get if it wants to stop new bills from passing, and especially if it wants to weaken them in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But can the NRA weaken legislation, given its weakened clout in the election this year? The group didn't do itself any favors spending $13 million against President Obama in what turned out to be one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history. And as The New York Times noted: "In the post-Citizens United world, where checks from a handful of billionaires can rival the fund-raising of an entire presidential campaign, the N.R.A.’s treasury gives it less clout than before."

The next test will be gaining back that power in the halls of Congress.

Money: An Unparalleled Cash Flow, from the Outside-in

On Wednesday, an NRA source told Fox that an internal memo indicated that "both the number of individual contributions to the NRA and their average amount have risen significantly in this period" since the shooting at Sandy Hook. And you're allowed to be a little skeptical — it's an anonymous source (albeit an apparently reliable one),and there aren't any public documents backing this up. But the NRA doesn't have to lie about money because they spend so much of it. "The disparity between what the NRA spends on political activities — lobbying and campaigns — and what the best-funded gun-control advocacy group (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) spends is absolutely massive," writes The Washington Post's Chris Cilizza, highlighting this chart from the Sunlight Foundation:

Even if they are losing support among Democrats, the NRA clearly has the power to lobby the stuffing out lawmakers and fight opponents like the mega-rich, anti-gun Mayor Michael Bloomberg. For instance, the lobby gave just $2500 to House Speaker John Boehner's (unopposed) re-election campaign in 2012 this year (and $44,800 over his career), but Boehner received more from gun-rights interest groups at large — and the NRA may just be part of a larger umbrella in the new gun debate.

Membership: Popularity as Power, and on the Rise

The same Fox News link from an NRA source indicated Wednesday that the shooting in Newtown may have actually results in a spike in membership — 8,000 new card-carriers since Friday. The group, of course, has traditionally been murky on their membership numbers and could even be bluffing about the figure. Bloomberg News reported in 2011:

The number of NRA members is unclear. One NRA website says it’s “approximately 4.3 million.” On another, it’s “nearly four million.” A “sponsorship prospectus” for the group’s 2012 annual meeting offers ad placements in e-mails that will be sent to the “house file of 2 million NRA members.”

And we also don't know how many members they lost because of the shooting — not that they'd want that information out there. But even the president can speculate as to human emotion: "The NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers, and I would expect that they've been impacted by this as well," Obama said during his press conference Wednesday. And hopefully they'll do some self-reflection."

Still the firm beliefs of the NRA's base is not to be denied, and the group's members were not backing down once the group broke its silence on Tuesday. Whether its leaders do, well, that will have to wait until Friday's press conference. Or at least Sunday, when LaPierre will meet the press and NRA President David Keene will appear on Face the Nation. Stay tuned.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.