The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NRA has weakened. But gun rights drive the GOP more than ever.

GOP politicians are taking more-uncompromising positions on guns even as lawsuits and infighting have dragged down the flagship gun lobby

A National Rifle Association logo is displayed above members during the group's annual meeting in Indianapolis on April 27, 2019. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

Nearly a decade ago, the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school threw the politics of gun violence into a state of suspension for a full week, as conservative politicians waited to hear from the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, before taking a stand.

This week, after another rampage, at a Texas elementary school that left 19 children and two teachers dead, Republican lawmakers didn’t wait for the NRA as they lined up within hours to rebuff any proposed gun-control measures.

That dynamic reflects both the recent decline of the NRA’s power and the logical conclusion of its own increasingly hard-line messaging that guns and liberty are inextricable from patriotism and that all gun control is a plot to seize weapons and leave owners defenseless. The NRA, which will host former president Donald Trump at its annual convention Friday in Houston, has been embroiled in lawsuits and infighting for the last four years, taking a toll on its budget and standing in Washington — and also creating space for more-extreme groups to gain traction.

Inside the NRA’s finances: Deepening debt, increased spending on legal fees — and cuts to gun training

“The NRA is not doing anything around the country anywhere; all their staff lawyered up and are fighting amongst each other,” said Dudley Brown, a gun rights lobbyist who has long criticized the NRA for being too open to compromise. Brown’s rival group, the National Association for Gun Rights, has grown to 75 staff members and a $15 million budget, he said, up from about $6 million in 2019.

Politicians pleaded for “common sense” gun laws after at least 19 students and two adults were killed in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

For GOP voters and lawmakers, gun rights have become a central culture-war issue animating their movement. Arguments that once centered on hunting and rural traditions have turned into bitter battles over identity, with no need for a giant lobbying group like the NRA to stoke the flames.

“The movement itself is remarkably resilient, and it’s not a pyramid as much as the NRA would love it to be,” Brown said. “It used to be, but it’s not anymore.”

Brown’s group is not the only competitor to pick up money and members from the NRA’s wake. Gun Owners of America grew from less than a dozen staff members in Springfield, Va., in 2018 to now having field directors in 25 states. The organization’s income surged to about $5.9 million in 2019, more than double what it raised two years earlier, according to tax filings.

“I’ve been told we could stop fundraising for five to 10 years and keep operating on the money we have,” said the group’s general counsel, Mike Hammond. As an illustration of the group’s growing influence, Hammond said every Republican congressional candidate in New Hampshire came to visit his country store in Dunbarton, N.H., seeking the group’s endorsement. “The NRA is a convenient foil for the left, but the NRA is not the be-all, end-all.”

The NRA says it has more than 5 million members but hasn’t released specific figures over time. NRA affiliates made campaign contributions totaling about $786,000 in the 2020 cycle and spent more than $29 million on ads, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. But the organization’s clout has always derived less from direct spending than from its ability to mobilize its members to pressure their representatives. An NRA spokesperson did not respond to messages from The Washington Post.

Now, many of the most vocal gun rights voters are turning to activists like Brown and Hammond, who fault the NRA for negotiating in the past on some legislation. The NRA discussed expanding background checks for gun buyers in the ultimately unsuccessful 2013 proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) following the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and initially supported the Trump administration’s proposed regulations on machine-gun-simulating bump stocks after the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas. The splintering of the NRA’s institutional voice and the rise of groups taking a harder line has created a political environment in which a once-coveted “A” rating from the NRA is no longer enough for some Republicans.

“The NRA has been the biggest supporter of gun control not only in Congress, but in state capitols nationwide for decades,” said Patrick Parsons, the former chief of staff to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Parsons said the NRA never endorsed Greene or contacted her office to support her legislation, such as a bill to block federal funding for any gun regulations. He’s now the executive vice president of American Firearms Association, whose members, he said, “take a confrontational politics approach to gun rights activism.”

The effect of this pressure on Republican politicians was clear from their unflinching opposition to new legislation in response to this week’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem stuck with plans to speak at the NRA’s Houston meeting. (Guns will not be allowed in the auditorium during Trump’s speech because of the Secret Service’s security requirements, according to the NRA’s website.)

State and local lawmakers on both sides of the aisle commented on the events surrounding a mass school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Democrats including President Biden have demanded action and called on lawmakers to “stand up to the gun lobby.” The Democratic National Committee condemned Republicans who planned to attend Friday’s NRA convention, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke called on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had also planned to speak, to withdraw. Abbott later canceled his appearance, his office told reporters Thursday evening, choosing instead to visit Uvalde again. He will deliver pre-recorded remarks to the convention.

Gun safety groups such as Everytown, meanwhile, are pushing lawmakers to take advantage of the NRA’s weakened footing.

“Dismantling the power that the gun lobby accumulated over the years was never going to happen overnight, but it’s clear that this NRA consumed by chaos and mismanagement is in a weakened position,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement. “It’s on Senators now to realize that this isn’t the NRA of years past, and actually do something because we can’t wait another minute.”

But the NRA’s decline has not reduced the potency of guns as an animating force in right-wing politics. A Gallup survey last year found that support for stricter gun control had fallen five percentage points to 52 percent, the lowest percentage since 2014. Americans disagree on whether stricter gun control would reduce mass shootings, and policy proposals tend to break down along partisan lines, according to the Pew Research Center.

Campaign ads mentioning guns, the Second Amendment, the NRA and “self-defense” accounted for 7.2 percent of all Republican media spending this year, compared with 3.6 percent in 2018, according to data from the media tracking firm AdImpact. Candidates are engaged in a literal arms race to show off ever more firepower, from pistols and shotguns to assault rifles and machine guns. Some ads show the candidates firing the weapons at targets symbolizing policies they oppose — and even, in one case, at actors playing Democratic politicians.

“The NRA is not a big player when it comes to spending on political advertising, but guns are still an issue that a lot of candidates are talking about,” said Travis Ridout, a politics professor at Washington State University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “A lot of it is by virtue of being pictured with a gun, and that sends a message that the candidate is not hostile to gun rights.”

In another sign of how the party has moved since the Newtown massacre, the baseless claim spread by Alex Jones that the shooting was staged has turned into a knee-jerk response for some Republican elected officials after new mass shootings. Greene, before she was elected to Congress, endorsed a false claim that the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., was staged, leading the House to remove her from her committee assignments. On the day of the vote last year, Greene acknowledged school shootings were “absolutely real.” This month, the Arizona state Senate opened an ethics investigation into Sen. Wendy Rogers for a social media post that falsely suggested the May 14 mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket, which authorities have said was motivated by the gunman’s white-supremacist beliefs, was done by a federal agent. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday tweeted and then deleted false information blaming the Texas shooting on a “transsexual leftist illegal alien.”

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, the NRA indicated plans to “redouble our commitment to making our schools secure,” suggesting the group will maintain its position of encouraging more armed personnel in schools.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, as news channels broadcast images of shattered parents planning their first-graders’ funerals during the holiday season, several senior NRA officials cautioned that the organization should strike a more conciliatory approach than they had in the past and weigh proposed tweaks to gun laws, The Post reported.

Newtown massacre divided NRA leaders, foreshadowing split to come

Instead, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre struck a defiant tone in a Dec. 21, 2012, news conference in Washington — seven days after that shooting — insisting that the NRA’s enemies were the ones to be ashamed for their fearmongering.

“While some have tried to exploit the tragedy for political gain, we have remained respectfully silent,” he said. The NRA leader then blamed pro-gun-control politicians for supposedly putting children in harm’s way by posting “gun-free” signs outside schools. LaPierre proposed a plan to install armed security guards at schools.

At the time, LaPierre confided to NRA officials he was frightened for his personal safety and believed he might be targeted for assassination by gun-control “nuts,” according to multiple people familiar with his views at the time. He and his wife then left by private jet for a visit to the Bahamas and remained there through the Christmas holidays, a trip that cost NRA members $70,000.

The NRA has been on a steady downward slide since 2018, when it began spending huge sums on legal fees.

That year, the NRA froze its pension plan to try to save $13 million and obtained $28 million in a new line of credit by borrowing against its Virginia headquarters — and still ended the year with a $10 million deficit. The huge drain on NRA finances was twofold: Some high-profile members were slowly pulling away from the organization, and legal fees were rapidly mounting. The New York attorney general launched an investigation into LaPierre’s alleged abuse of NRA coffers for personal use, and the NRA and its longtime public-relations firm engaged in a feud stretching across several courthouses. NRA legal fees more than tripled in 2018 from the previous year, rising above $25 million.

In 2020, the nonprofit cut the money it spent on its gun training program again, this time by 43 percent, internal records show. By early 2021, the NRA reported cutting its number of employees by about 35 percent, from 770 to 490.

NRA chief sought purchase of $6 million mansion in wake of Parkland shooting

The gun rights group’s legal bills were among the rare costs that continued to rise, with the NRA paying $62 million to its outside counsel between 2018 and the end of 2020. Those astronomical expenses came as the NRA battled with its PR firm and later agreed to settle their lawsuits.

Earlier this year, a judge rejected most of the NRA’s arguments seeking to dismiss a suit by the New York attorney general with an opinion that began with a dramatic explanation why the case should go forward.

“[T]he Attorney General’s allegations in this case, if proven, tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association,” the judge wrote.

“The NRA is irrelevant inside the gun community right now,” said Rob Pincus, a lifetime NRA member and current firearms instructor who led efforts to overhaul the group’s board. He and many others expressed disgust at LaPierre’s leadership and revelations of his self-enrichment using members’ dues. “It’s a distraction from the organizations that are really doing the work and representing the interests of the gun community and gun owners.”

The NRA’s hold on American gun culture now also has to compete with YouTube influencers who have millions of subscribers, project their own messages against gun regulations and have pilloried the NRA’s squabbles. The NRA’s $300 million budget still dwarfs any other gun rights organization, but its turmoil has elevated the profile of rival groups that are more dogmatic.

“We’re all less compromising and less willing to deal on an issue that we consider fundamental civil rights,” Jeff Knox, director of The Firearms Coalition, a network of grass-roots organizations and gun clubs. “The NRA is the soft line in the gun lobby.”

The NRA has also responded to the pressure to take harder stances. Under LaPierre, the NRA — which once supported moderate Democrats — has increasingly aligned itself with Republican positions and the ultraconservative side of America’s culture wars. In 2016, the NRA placed a $30 million campaign bet on Trump, further cementing its interdependent relationship with the GOP. And at times, the NRA has echoed far-right positions on issues far afield from the Second Amendment. That has included promoting prayer in school, criticizing football players for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality, and mocking efforts to promote diversity in school materials.

NASCAR team owner and country music singer step down from NRA board in latest resignations

LaPierre’s newest team of NRA deputies have echoed Trump’s baseless claims. The NRA’s new vice president, Willes Lee, has made false claims about the 2020 election being rigged, asserting that 89 percent of the votes Joe Biden received were “cast for dead people.” He also claimed that cities led by Democratic politicians are engaged in a “genocide” plot to restrict guns and kill “inner-city residents.”

Such combativeness from the NRA and splinter groups contrasted with the posture taken on Thursday by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group representing gunmakers and sellers. The organization said it supported improving background checks by connecting “disqualifying mental health records” to the FBI’s system.