With an e-mail alert system designed to target its 4.2 million members, the NRA can mobilize hundreds of gun owners in every community on short notice to turn out at a committee hearing or a city council meeting.
“What they do well is they really get people out,” said Illinois state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D), who heads the House committee that was to consider the assault-weapons ban until gun owners, spurred by the local NRA affiliate, overwhelmed legislators with calls and e-mails. “That’s democracy. I can’t fault them for it. I have to applaud them for it.”
Nekritz, who supports the proposed ban, said her office received hundreds of phone messages and about 1,000 e-mails in the two days before she pulled the bill. “I didn’t see anything that was supportive,” she said.
The response resulted in part from work done by the NRA’s local affiliate, the Illinois State Rifle Association, which e-mailed its 20,000 members and contacted other gun owners statewide.
“Our base is passionate, and it’s big,” said Richard A. Pearson, executive director of the group. “The NRA is so powerful because millions of people in the United States think the NRA is doing the right thing.”
The post-Newtown efforts by gun rights activists follow two decades of success in transforming the policy and political landscape from the ground up. With the debate largely at a stand-off in Washington over the past 20 years, state after state has expanded gun owners’ rights, rolling back restrictions and, in many places, allowing people to bring guns onto college campuses, school grounds and the property owned by their employers.
Before 1987, when Florida approved a landmark law saying that anyone who can legally own a weapon shall be issued a license to carry it, 31 states prohibited or sharply restricted residents from carrying guns, according to an NRA report. The Florida law became a model that was widely adopted after state-level lobbying by the NRA. Today, only Illinois and Washington, D.C., maintain strict prohibitions. In addition, more than 40 states now have laws, drafted in part by the group, limiting the right of local governments to restrict guns — a response to efforts by several cities to regulate firearms.
Much of the NRA’s national agenda in the states originated in Florida, home to a large gun-owning population and a wily lobbyist, Marion Hammer, a 73-year-old grandmother and gun enthusiast widely considered the best of the NRA’s stable of state-level advocates.
Hammer gained national prominence when she pushed through Florida’s groundbreaking 1987 concealed-carry law. She has found success ever since as a front-line advocate for the NRA, consistently pressing for new measures that can serve as templates for other states.