But the NRA and the GOP didn’t always have such a close, interdependent relationship. As I’ll explore below, the NRA used to support candidates from both parties and generally avoided being attached to partisan or ideological labels. Politicians used to be much less polarized on gun policy by party. And Republican voters used to support gun regulations at much higher rates than they do now.
How did the NRA and GOP become so closely aligned?
The early NRA
Many observers believe the organization was apolitical before the 1970s. But my recently completed dissertation — which analyzes nearly 80 years of the NRA’s widely circulated American Rifleman magazine — shows it was an active, staunch opponent of gun regulations since at least the 1930s, when gun policy first reached the national agenda.
Starting then, the NRA made ideological arguments, connecting gun rights to a range of issue positions that are today associated with conservatism. The magazine’s editorials identified gun ownership with hawkish foreign policy stances, individual liberty, limited government, and racially biased “law and order” criminal justice policies. The NRA’s supporters — who have long been both highly politically engaged and responsive to the organization’s appeals — largely adopted these positions.
Yet the NRA was indeed nonpartisan before the 1970s, and avoided associating itself with particular ideological labels. That’s true in part because until the late 1960s, the NRA accepted substantial amounts of federal government funding. It administered public marksmanship programs; NRA-affiliated club members had exclusive rights to purchase surplus military weapons at low prices. This gave the NRA incentives to stay above the partisan fray; if it aligned with one party, the other would more closely scrutinize its government support.
The NRA’s transformation
But in November 1963, a gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy — and gun control leaped onto the national agenda for the first time since the 1930s. As it had in the past, the NRA mobilized its members to oppose regulations. But by then, the organization was much larger than it had been the last time federal-level gun controls were seriously debated.
Given its large size and a shifting political climate, the NRA’s opposition to gun regulations drew more attention — and criticism — than before. Congress slashed its government support, which removed the organization’s incentive to stay out of partisan politics.
Around the same time, a new conservative movement called the New Right was on the rise. The New Right’s platform emphasized social issues like gun control, hawkish anti-communism and small government. That aligned closely with the positions the NRA had espoused for decades. Given this alignment, along with the size and political intensity of the NRA’s membership, during the 1970s, the New Right and its Republican allies eagerly courted the NRA and its supporters, taking increasingly pro-gun stances and reaching out to gun rights leaders.
The NRA’s top officials at the time were reluctant to join an explicitly ideological movement and to align with a political party. This serious internal conflict culminated when some of the NRA’s hard line New Right supporters dramatically grabbed control at the 1977 annual meeting — now known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati.” After the takeover, the new, New Right-aligned NRA leadership dedicated more resources to politics and became much more openly conservative. The organization quickly entered partisan politics with its first-ever political endorsement: New Right hero Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
The NRA joins the party
Since Reagan’s 1980 victory, the NRA and the GOP have become increasingly aligned. You can see that clearly during electoral campaigns, in which the NRA now — especially in federal races — almost exclusively supports Republicans. You can find it in the NRA’s public commentary, which delivers full-throated support to conservative figures and causes on issues that extend very far beyond gun rights. And as the NRA has increasingly supported Republicans, so have most individual gun owners.
The GOP, for its part, is more committed to the NRA’s gun rights agenda than ever. It’s nearly impossible to enact meaningful gun control laws or regulations — even after several of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — when Republicans control either branch of Congress or the White House. And most Republicans, even those who do not own guns, increasingly support gun rights.
More recently, the GOP has adopted ideas that have been core to the NRA’s political worldview for a long time. For instance, Trump’s nativist right-wing populism, including deep distrust of the media and government, had been core to the NRA’s appeals since at least the early 2000s.
The NRA also wades into racial and ethnic controversies. It pushed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about people like George Soros long before they become popular with the far right. Beginning in the early 2000s, the NRA was warning its members about Soros’s supposed globalist anti-gun agenda. It has criticized football players for kneeling in protest during the national anthem and mocked efforts to heighten diversity in children’s programming.
Given the close and interdependent relationship between the NRA and the GOP, neither Trump’s frequent appearances at NRA events nor the unwillingness of Republican policymakers to support additional regulations on guns should surprise anyone.
Matthew Lacombe will receive his PhD from Northwestern University this June before joining the department of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University as an assistant professor in summer 2019.