Four years after spending $30 million to elect Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association and the president are teaming up again. But this time, the NRA may be measurably weaker.
The gun-rights organization is one of the most influential lobbying groups in the United States. Yet, it has failed to get its top priorities signed into law under Trump. Gun-control activists say there is a noticeable waning of the NRA’s influence in state legislatures. In the 2018 elections, gun-control groups outspent the NRA as Republicans lost the House of Representatives. And now, the group is enmeshed in a scandal about a Russian spy and dealing with financial troubles.
As Trump addresses the NRA’s annual convention Friday for the third straight year, it’s possible we are witnessing a shift in the balance of power between the 150-year-old organization and the relatively new gun-control groups trying to defeat it.
"I've been working on gun safety for 15 years,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group backed by Michael Bloomberg, “and I've never seen the NRA this weak.”
The NRA, of course, dismisses this characterization. But they acknowledge that gun-control groups are catching up to them in some key ways. “The gun-control lobby has never been more well-funded or sized as it is today,” said Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA. “And that poses a threat to our constitutional right of self-defense.”
This is not what gun-control advocates expected after Trump’s election. They were nervous that the Republican-controlled Congress would quickly pass two of the NRA’s top priorities, drastically expanding who can carry a concealed gun and deregulating gun silencers favored among hunters.
The conceal-carry bill passed the House of Representatives, but neither bill got a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate because it didn’t have a big enough majority to overcome Democratic filibusters. Then, in 2018, Democrats took back the House. They quickly passed legislation to expand and strengthen federal background checks. The measure stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it’s a sign of just how motivated the left has become around this issue.
On the state level, gun-control advocates say 20 states passed laws favored by gun-control groups, including nine signed into law by Republican governors, in the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school in 2018.
It’s worth noting that the NRA claims legislative victories every year, too. If the pace of wins has slowed, they say it’s because they’ve already expanded gun laws in so many states that it’s hit a ceiling. And the organization points to a more conservative Supreme Court as a major victory.
But gun-control advocates say there was a telling battle this year in Arkansas that underscores the NRA’s loosening grip on politicians. A self-defense bill known as “stand your ground” had heavy lobbying by both sides. Gun-control groups ultimately defeated it.
Eve Jorgensen is a Moms Demand Action volunteer in Arkansas who was very active in the fight. She said there was a noticeable difference in momentum for her side, compared with just two years ago.
"In the past, even Democrats didn’t really want to talk with us in public,” she said. “Now we had some moderate Republicans standing with us.”
The NRA is also battling embarrassing headlines. Russian agent Maria Butina was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison for trying to infiltrate American conservative circles, using the NRA to climb that ladder. Her case was a spinoff from the special counsel probe into Russian election interference, and NRA opponents seized on the fact the organization’s name has been dragged into this. “They like to wrap themselves in patriotism, and I think some of these most recent moves call that into question,” Feinblatt, of Everytown, said.
The NRA is also dealing with some internal struggles. Amid declining membership, it is suing the media agency it’s worked with for nearly four decades, alleging it hid billing information. The lawsuit came after a New Yorker investigation found that the NRA was struggling financially in part because of mismanagement.
The NRA’s struggles are coming to the fore just as the Democratic Party sees political value in making it a boogeyman. The 20 presidential candidates trying to defeat Trump are trying to out-gun-control each other. This is a nearly unrecognizable party from just a few presidential elections ago, when Democratic candidates had to feature their hunting credentials anytime they wanted to bring up gun control.
Now, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) regularly attack the NRA. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) says she’d take executive action on gun control in her first 100 days as president. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has made gun control, particularly banning assault weapons, his presidential campaign’s top issue.
“It’s a seismic shift, and I think we saw it in 2018, and we’ll see it in 2020,” Feinblatt said, “and I think it will be a defining issue of the presidential campaign.”
Whether that plays to Trump’s and the NRA’s advantage is an open question now more than ever.