The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the NRA has shaped the world’s gun laws

Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

In 2013, the National Rifle Association took aim at the United Nations.

The world body was pushing an Arms Trade Treaty that would ban the sale of weapons to regimes committing genocide or war crimes. To the NRA, though, this was not about keeping bombs and tanks from North Korea and Iran. It was an assault on freedom, a stealth attempt to regulate firearms in the United States.

As the NRA put it on its website: “The most pressing international threat to U.S. gun owners is the UN Arms Trade Treaty.... [If passed,] U.S. firearms policy could become the rest of the world’s business and subject to its approval, on pain of trade restrictions if it doesn’t meet 'international norms.'”

That is typical of the group's lobbying efforts around the world. The NRA wields plenty of influence at home — influence that has come under increasing scrutiny in the month since the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. It has also intervened to help block attempts to regulate firearms in other countries, hoping to protect both gun ownership and potential markets for gun manufacturers.

In the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, it did not matter that the pact included explicit language recognizing “legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities,” or that U.S. officials and the American Bar Association said there would be no impact on American gun rights or the Second Amendment.

The NRA ran an aggressive international lobbying effort to try to get all references to firearms dropped. The World Forum on Shooting Activities, an international coalition of gun manufacturers and gun-rights activists founded by the NRA in 1997, also spoke against the treaty. When that did not work, the group began lobbying congressional leaders, urging them not to ratify the measure. Ultimately, the treaty was signed by the Obama administration but never ratified by Congress.

Other U.N. efforts have met similar fates. As Scott Stedjan of Oxfam International put it, there are now more global agreements regulating the trade of bananas than of AK-47s.

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It is just one way the NRA has helped shape the international conversation on guns. Though it does not actively fund lobbyists around the world, the organization has played a major role in firearms debates all over the globe. It worked to defeat gun-control bills in Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. As David Morton put it in Foreign Policy:

The NRA may not be actively funding gun lobbies around the world — the organization claims its charter prohibits it — but its influence is felt in much more than dollars. It lends support to the anti-gun control effort at the United Nations. It promotes lines of argument, strategy, and political tactics that others adopt for local use. And, if you contact the association, its representatives will come to explain how to get it done. Although many of the NRA’s members may not own a passport, their leaders are savvy operators in international politics. For all their red-blooded American pretensions, they have a deep understanding of how globalization works.

In Canada, for example, the NRA employed several strategies to help gun-rights activists. In the 1990s, when politicians were trying to strengthen gun-control laws, the NRA called on its members to boycott hunting in Canada, which would have dealt a significant blow to the country's tourism industry.

NRA leaders have also spoken frequently in Canada about the importance of protecting the right to bear arms, and they have worked with groups such as the Canadian Shooting Sports Association to build its lobbying capabilities.

In Brazil, the organization stepped in to help kill a 2005 referendum that would have banned the sale of firearms and ammunition to civilians.

At the time, Brazil had one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. A Brazilian was being killed by a gun every 15 seconds. Politicians, church leaders and law enforcement agreed a ban would help stem the tide of violence. When it was announced, a majority of Brazilians supported it.

Then the country's gun-rights activists teamed up with the NRA. In 2003, NRA lobbyist Charles Cunningham traveled to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to speak to sports-shooting organizations, gun collectors and other gun-rights advocates. He spoke about the U.S. Constitution and the NRA's history. This fight, Cunningham told them, was about more than guns. It was about freedom, he said, according to the New York Times.

That message was translated into a series of effective ads. In one, a news anchor looked directly into the camera and warned: “People are misrepresenting the disarmament issue. It won’t disarm criminals.” Then came a montage that included Nelson Mandela's release from prison and the famous "tank man" of Tiananmen Square.

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“Your rights are at risk,” said the anchor. “Don’t lose your grip on liberty.” Researchers said support for the gun-control measure dropped in the weeks the ad aired. It was ultimately defeated, 64 percent to 36 percent.

“We didn't lose because Brazilians like guns. We lost because people don't have confidence in the government or the police,” Denis Mizne of the anti-violence group Sou da Paz told the BBC. “The 'No' campaign was much more effective. They are talking about a right to have a gun. It is a totally American debate.”

The NRA's obsession with fighting gun control might be ideological. Or it might have something to do with protecting the global market of gun buyers. After all, the group represents many of the world's top weapons manufacturers. Protecting the right to bear arms also protects their right to sell to anyone, anywhere.