It's widely acknowledged that the National Rifle Association is one of the nation's most influential advocacy groups. They've successfully lobbied against the expansion of federal gun control policies in the post-Newtown era, and supported numerous state-level policy changes that broadened access to guns. Through campaign donations and popular legislator scorecards they exert considerable influence on federal gun law making.
Given its high profile, it's easy to assume that the NRA represents the voice of American gun owners. But in fact, the organization's membership numbers and survey data point a different picture. Only a small fraction of the nation's gun owners are NRA members. Even among NRA members, there is widespread dissent from some key points of the organization's orthodoxy. And on many gun control issues, the majority of gun owners who aren't affiliated with the NRA hold opinions closer to those of non-gun owners than to those of NRA members.
Let's start with the membership numbers. In recent years the NRA has said it has 5 million dues-paying members. There's some reason to be skeptical of this figure, but let's assume 5 million is right. Those 5 million members only comprise somewhere between 6 and 7 percent of American gun owners. That would imply that the overwhelming majority of American gun owners -- over 90 percent of them -- do not belong to the NRA.
Here's how I arrived at that figure. Survey data from Gallup and from a recent study published in the journal Injury Prevention indicate that between 30 and 33 percent of American adults say they personally own a firearm. Per the Census, there are roughly 245 million adults aged 18 and over in the U.S. Multiplying the adult population by the ownership rate gives us between 73 million and 81 million adult gun owners in the U.S. And the 5 million NRA members represent about 6 or 7 percent of that total.
Of course, there are likely plenty of gun owners who don't belong to the NRA, but who nonetheless share some of its policy positions. And it's likely that a number of non-gun owning Americans support the NRA's policies too. After all, about 43 percent of Americans -- mostly Republicans -- currently have a favorable view of the organization. And 53 percent of Americans -- again, primarily Republicans -- say either that the organization has just enough influence over gun control laws, or that it doesn't have enough influence.
On the other hand, survey data indicates that non-NRA gun owners hold positions on key gun rights issues that are closer to non-gun owners than they are to NRA members. And even within the universe of NRA members, considerable numbers of gun owners take policy positions that the organization opposes.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of the attitudes of gun owners, including NRA members, on various aspects of gun policy. They found that majorities of gun owners in NRA (81 percent) and non-NRA (60 percent) households said it was more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership. But on the question of whether to require background checks for private and gun show sales--an idea the organization opposes--non-NRA members (83 percent) were only slightly more likely than NRA members (74 percent) to agree with this policy.
And on the questions of whether to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, policies the NRA opposes, majorities of non-NRA gun owners (51 percent in each case) joined with majorities of people who don't own guns in support of these measures. Even one third of NRA members support these measures.
Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate that there's a large and largely silent majority of gun owners who find themselves at odds with the NRA on key gun policy issues. And even within the NRA, plenty of members disagree with the organization's stated policy positions. As my colleague Michael Rosenwald wrote last week, this silent majority has been locked out of the gun control debate, on the one hand by gun control advocates who paint gun owners in broad brushstrokes, and on the other by the more extreme elements within the NRA.
It's unlikely that much will change with respect to firearms policy until these people have a bigger voice.