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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.



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Perhaps because so many "journalists" these days are merely young, cute and blond news readers, their naivete is painful to watch. They play a 14-year-old videotape of Wayne LaPierre testifying before Congress as "proof" that the NRA was once in favor of background checks, and wonder why it has become so extreme since 1999.Well, unlike them, I do remember what was going on 14 years ago. The NRA was indeed in favor of instant background checks -- but only because, as everyone including the NRA knew, the technology to perform instant checks didn't exist. In 1999 the Internet was still in its infancy. What the NRA bitterly opposed was a proposal floating through Congress that would have mandated a 24- to 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of a gun, time enough to perform a background check using the technology then available. The people who sold guns couldn't tolerate a customer's having the option to rethink the whole notion of owning a gun and possibly canceling the purchase. Ergo, they supported instant background checks in the smug certainty that an instant check couldn't be done.I'm quite certain that the NRA calculated that if the day ever came when an instant check was feasible, they'd have an entirely new set of excuses for opposing it. Ta-daaa: the Second Amendment is absolute, criminals will just steal guns rather than submit to background checks, background checks are the camel's nose in the tent leading to confiscation of weapons....

Having purchased my share of guns in pawnshops, sporting goods stores, and at gun shows, the new technology via the internet makes it essential and feasible to do background checks on anybody purchasing a gun. I do have to laugh at the get a gun to stop a dictatorial government crowd. If the government were really interested in tracking down the gun owners, all they would have to do is take down license plate numbers at gun shops and gun shows. Bingo. That takes care of most of the gun nuts in my county. And then there is the fad of conceal/carry, where people really do submit themselves to a strict check. More addresses for the ditatorial government waiting in the wings. And of course there is the romantic idea of turning your home into a bunker which you then defend with your AR 15 and assorted handguns. The army of the dictator, not wanting to waste bullets, would simply drive over your home turned into bunker with a tank. Al this is so dumb, dumb, dumb.

If one were to posit an evil and despotic government out to take away guns (and other "freedoms") from all Americans, one should probably assume that the despots already have either placed moles in NRA or have simply hacked their mailing lists--and the mailing lists of every magazine marketed to gun owners. And given the premise of an evil and despotic government out to destroy freedom, one needs to recognize that the government will not have to send a few guys to round up the gun owners--the government has drones, cruise missiles, bombers, helicopter gunships, and the other assets of modern warfare. If the government is as bad as some of these folks seem to believe, assault rifles and stacks of ammunition won't help. They need to work out the full implications of their own premises. Of course I think their premises verge on paranoia, even though I have my own concerns about our government (endless wars and drone assassinations, for example). But political activism and persuasion are better and more ethical solutions than private arsenals.

Might if be helpful if the news media were to tell us whether those who cause harm by shooting others are members of the NRA? Take the case of the man who recently killed a schoolbus driver and then kidnapped a 6-year old. Was his gun legal? Did he belong to the NRA? Would the NRA tell us if he did?

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