Who does the NRA really speak for?
This morning's edition of my local paper has a guest opinion column with the headline "NRA Simply Reflects the Views of Its Membership."This is what the NRA will tell you, too: They are the voice of "responsible gun owners," protecting Americans' basic rights. It may seem simple, and at one time it may have been true. But today it's simply false.Tim Dickinson has an article in the February 14 Rolling Stone, "The NRA vs. America," with excellent reporting on how the NRA has radicalized in the decades since its founding, and how it has come to represent not its membership, but its sponsors: the gun manufacturing industry. "The NRA insists in its publications that it is 'not a trade organization' and that it is 'not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition,'" Dickinson writes. "That is a lie." One example:
[T]he NRA receives funds directly from the sales of arms and ammunition. The "Round-Up" program, launched by arms retailer Midway USA, encourages customers to increase their purchases to the nearest dollar and sends the extra coin to the association. Midway customers alone have contributed nearly $8 million in this way to support NRA's lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action.
Other corporate ties are more direct, and Dickinson lays them out clearly. But it's initiatives like the "Round-Up" program that make people like the guest columnist I quoted above really believe the lie that the NRA's driving purpose is to represent the goals of its members. The truth, however, is that NRA members, when polled, support mild gun-control measures like universal background checks and refusing to sell guns to certain groups of people (those on the terrorist watch list, for example). Meanwhile, the NRA lobbies aggressively against those very proposals.Dickinson also covers how -- at the service of the gun industry -- the NRA has changed its tune, from "We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools" (Wayne LaPierre, in a speech after the 1999 Columbine shooting) to proposing armed (NRA-trained) guards and pistol-packing teachers in every school (after Newtown). Supporting "Stand Your Ground" laws, despite evidence that they encourage gun violence rather than suppressing crime, is another way the NRA has tailored its lobbying agenda with the primary goal of boosting gun sales.My guess is that most NRA members have no idea how they're being used by the firearms industry. Will they now begin to notice? Paul Waldman, at the American Prospect, hopes so.
[N]ow that Wayne LaPierre has been appearing on television shows, the whole country has gotten to see just what a maniac he is, and how extreme the organization has become. And now that there are concrete proposals on the table, voters can see that the NRA will oppose even universal background checks, which every opinion poll taken in the last couple of months has shown are supported by an astonishing 90 percent of the public.
That exposure, Waldman writes, may embolden members of Congress who would otherwise be inclined to do the NRA's bidding. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum is more skeptical. But he also notes that the cultural radicalization of the NRA is its own compelling story, one that deserves a thorough airing. "How and why," he asks, "did the NRA morph from merely defending gun ownership to actively demanding that guns should be displayed everywhere, at all times, and largely as a means of defending yourself from the state?" And when will that transformation become uncomfortable for all those "responsible gun owners" who keep on thinking the NRA gives them a voice?
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.