Russian national Maria Butina recently pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered agent for her government during the 2016 presidential campaign, revealing how well Russia knows the fault lines of U.S. politics and culture, and the extent to which it will go to divide and conquer American democracy.
Russia’s target was the National Rifle Association, which represents the zenith of discord and dysfunction in U.S. politics. With a stranglehold over Republican officeholders, the organization has stoked the most polarizing cultural fracture in the United States: the gun debate.
The debate is deeply polarizing, even though consensus exists on both the left and the right about the need for greater regulation, evidenced Tuesday by the Trump administration’s ban on bump stocks. Yet the NRA has spent decades inflaming fears of “big government” by pushing the concept that any common-sense gun control represents an attack on the Second Amendment. Russia seized on the gun debate because it is ripe for misinformation that can further polarize Americans, even when Americans agree more than they disagree.
Founded in 1871 by a Union army veteran to encourage greater marksmanship and sports shooting, the NRA has only recently become a powerful, and controversial, political force. The group began to develop an interest in politics during the 1930s, but it was not until 1975 that the NRA created its Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) to defend the Second Amendment from supposed legislative threats.
Although the NRA was influential in forming federal gun laws between the 1930s and 1960s, it was not until the mid-1970s that politics became its raison d’etre. That shift happened just as the politics of the group began to change. Before 1977, the NRA represented the national consensus on common-sense gun regulations, even agreeing with the need for sales of handguns to be subject to background checks. Enter Harlon Carter. Carter took charge of the ILA in its first year of operation and demanded that the NRA become more politically focused, leading to his dismissal in 1976. At the NRA’s annual convention in 1977, however, Carter regained power after being elected executive vice president. From this position, he dictated the NRA’s rise to power as an anti-regulation lobbying force.
The NRA’s political turn transformed it into a prominent partisan group with a highly engaged membership and, eventually, the ability to defeat any meaningful gun-control legislation. There was a clear synergy between the political rhetoric of the NRA and Republicans’ opposition to federal initiatives that supposedly transgressed American liberties. As the NRA became a powerful fundraiser, supporting congressional candidates for the first time in 1980, Republicans became submissive to its demands.
Over time, that left it an increasingly partisan organization, as Democrats sympathetic to the NRA’s agenda and Republican proponents of gun control left office. The NRA gained newfound political might after Democrats muscled the Assault Weapons Ban through Congress in 1994 and lost control of both chambers the same year, with veteran Democrats crediting their defeat to the NRA’s opposition. Party leaders concluded that crossing the NRA in the future would be politically deadly.
The NRA also became an increasing political powerhouse, thanks to prolific fundraising. In the first presidential election cycle following the 1999 Columbine massacre, then the United States’ deadliest school shooting, the NRA raised $20 million for elections on both the federal and state level. By 2016, the NRA dwarfed this figure, disbursing $419 million in an attempt to avoid a continuation of Obama-era gun control advocacy under Hillary Clinton.
The organization also wasn’t shy about working to defeat Republicans in primary elections who crossed its priorities.
As a result, despite tragic and horrific school shootings, like the mass shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., six years ago this month, gun-control measures remain bottled up in Congress. The inability of Congress to protect American citizens through bipartisan legislation at the federal level has resulted in a patchwork of gun regulations across the country, with so many loopholes that states’ stricter laws are rendered largely meaningless as people and guns cross state lines.
In October 2017, following the massacre in Las Vegas, there was a brief moment of bipartisan reconciliation as people became familiar with the accessibility of bump stocks, which allow a semiautomatic weapon to become akin to a fully automatic killing machine, producing the carnage that occurred on the Strip.
And yet even with the support of President Trump, the ban on bump stocks was delayed for almost 15 months, due to the intransigence of some lawmakers and the persistent lobbying of the NRA. Depending on where one stands on this issue, the ban indicates either Trump’s lack of appreciation of the hold the NRA has on his party or the faintest glimmer of moral courage (or at least an ability to read the polls).
Russia’s infiltration of the NRA represents an ingenious maneuver to sow greater disunity among U.S. voters. It’s also instructive to Americans about the danger of the NRA. The group exacerbates fault lines in the ongoing culture wars, even though Americans have far more in common on gun laws than the NRA would like them to believe. The power wielded by the organization distinguishes it as a special interest that contorts democracy, making it the perfect tool for Russia.
Russia understands that the NRA’s ability to polarize Americans are part of a self-destructive tendency within American political debates. The Parkland shooting in Florida earlier this year and the March for Our Lives movement that followed quickly turned into a partisan brawl during this midterm election year.
While checks and balances protect U.S. democracy, there are only limited checks on accessibility to guns. The proliferation of mass shootings and increasing gun violence — just-released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reveals that more people died from guns last year than in any other year since at least 1968 — exposes how the greatest threat to American peace and prosperity is sometimes divisions among Americans themselves. The Russians understand that. It’s past time Americans understand it, as well.