Sunday, 25 February 2018

Is the NRA's Power Finally Under Threat?

by Eleanor Williams-Brown

Americans own 35-50% of all civilian guns in the world. Even more worryingly, 3% of Americans own half of the civilian guns in the US and the top 3% of guns owners have more than 25 guns each. The National Rifle Association for America, (NRA), is the most prominent group who lobbies for Americans’ right to own guns, and challenges any gun control legislation. It is the main scapegoat for the continual failure of gun legislation, which considering its enormous influence on Washington, is justified.

The NRA, is a tax-exempt non-profit organisation that appears in the news with increasing frequency as the worrying number of school shootings rise each year. The group was founded in 1871 to “promote and encourage rifle shooting” and began political lobbying in 1934 when it started mailing its members information about upcoming firearms bills. Then, in the 1970s, it began to direct funds to legislators, even forming a new lobbying section - the Institute for Legislative Action. The problem with the NRA today is not just over its staunch opposition to any gun regulations, but also to how a small number of incredibly motivated people are pushing an agenda that does not fit with the views of much of the US population.

There have been eight US school shootings resulting in injury or death in 2018 alone, and 18 times when a gun has been fired on school property. The latest happened in Parkland, Florida. On Valentine's Day, 17 people were killed by a former pupil and the surviving students are taking a stand calling for changes to American gun legislation. Powerful and emotive speeches from the pupils, notably Jaclyn Corin,  have been circulated across all forms of media. Moreover, these pupils have organised a ‘March for Our Lives’ on March 24 in Washington D.C., with the aim not to ban guns completely, but simply to create regulations on semi-automatic weapons.

What is really drawing media attention with these students was when Cameron Kasky, one of the students from Parkland, asked Marco Rubio, the junior Senator for Florida, asking if he “can tell [him] right now that you [Rubio] will not accept a single donation from the NRA”. At Kasky’s question the crowd immediately stood up and cheered, which is unsurprising due to the highest number of Americans supporting stricter stricter gun control laws than ever. But, Rubio is one of the top ten career beneficiaries of NRA campaign spending - receiving many millions of dollars - and, unsurprisingly, said no, he would not start to refuse their money.

With Kasky saying he would have “asked the NRA lady... how she can look into the mirror considering the fact she has children”, it raises questions of whether the NRA truly has, as people believe, “a chokehold on Congress”, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, or does the influence truly come, as Rubio claimed, “not from money… but the millions who agree with the agenda”.

A large portion of the NRA’s power does come from money. In the 2018 election cycle, gun rights groups outspent the competition 40 to 1, making nearly $600,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures on behalf of congressional candidates, whereas gun control groups barely spent $14,000. The breadth of campaign support provided by the NRA is not something new with them being deeply ingrained into the election process the organisation started campaigning in the 1970s.

The NRA outspends all of the US’ gun control advocacy groups combined and spends $250 million a year for political purposes. In 2016, they spent $14.4 million on supporting 44 candidates, who won, and $34.4m opposing 19, who lost. But, only $4.1 million was spent on influencing policy in 2017. Whilst appearing large this is one of the smaller sums with the National Association of Realtors paying out $32.2 million on lobbying housing issues in the same time span. So, Rubio’s claim that it is the people not the money enacting change is not entirely accurate as the NRA still spends extortionate amounts; but, its influence is undoubtedly out of proportion to their financial firepower.

Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA School of Law, argues: “The NRA is not successful because of its money. To be sure, it is hard to be a force in American politics without money. The NRA has money that it uses to help its favored candidates get elected. But the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters.”

The NRA claims to have more than five million members which again, appears impressive at first, but it is  frequently accused of artificially inflating the number, with the real figure suggested to be around 3 million. But, the NRA’s success is not derived from the quantity of the people in the group, but rather their heightened political awareness. Analysts tend to point towards the NRA’s considerable indirect influence through its highly politically engaged membership who will vote on this single issue as a main reason for their power. With the NRA grading members of Congress from A to F on their friendliness to gun rights, and announces these publically, members are encouraged to vote solely on those who score highly on the scale. But NRA members do more than vote, they go to meetings, write letters, and contact people, and with so few American undertaking these actions they have an extremely large effect. Their website even has alerts about gun control bills which goes into the detail of the exact room and timing so members can be better prepared to oppose.

The ability to mobilise members using a classic example of advertising’s ‘big idea’ helps trace this groups motivation. The NRA relentlessly promotes the right to a gun as sacrosanct and connects it to America’s core values of personal liberty and individualism. It uses fear of government control and rising crime rates, concerns made even more prominent with the ‘left behind’ voters in Trump’s America. The NRA pushes these worries even further by playing on the idea gun rights are perpetually at risk, every measure, however sensible, translates into ‘we are coming for your guns’. When members are motivated by fear, they are going to turn out and will promote the NRA’s message. Furthermore, as the members are only defending a single issue, which they have as they want at the moment, there is no need for them to devise a plan for allowing guns, they simply need to say ‘no’. Sadly, a simple no is far more effective than a spiel on the benefits of gun regulations, and is easy for this group to utilise.

The NRA relies heavily on an interpretation of the Second Amendment which it argues gives US citizens the right to bear arms. Basing the majority of its argument on the Constitution also leads to it conveniently forget that the Constitution was written in the 18th century, the same one which viewed slaves as “other persons” who counted as ⅗ of a white person. The NRA also claims that guns will help to solve the problem of mass shooting- after the Sandy Hook shooting,  La Pierre, the head of the Association, claimed an armed guard with a gun would have solved the problem, in a similar way to Trump claiming the need to arm teachers.

One of the most horrifying aspects of the NRA is how it blocks information and research. The leading national public health institute in the US is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC examined gun violence in the 1980s to mid-90s until a 1993 study it funded found gun ownership was a risk factor for homicide at home. This infuriated the NRA so much it lobbied Congress to shut down the CDC division which researched gun violence. After three years, lifetime NRA member, Rep. Jay Dickey, added an amendment to the bill funding the CDC saying “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control" were allowed to be used to study or promote gun control. At the same time, the CDC experienced a cut of $2.6 million from Congress, the exact amount the CDC had spent on gun violence studies the year before, thus establishing the message that if you study gun violence you will risk your career and agency’s funding. Today, the CDC is helpless at researching gun violence, the leading cause of premature death in the US and there has appeared to be very little change to this limitation, although Democrats frequently rally against the Dickey amendment.

This oppression is not exclusive to research - for decades the NRA has kept the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in a very limited capacity. It lobbies against nominated directors and pushes Congress to curtail their ability to track gun crimes and regulate firearms. This is mainly conducted through rules on the way the ATF is allowed to spend money and the funding provision which forbids the ATF from using electronic databases to trace gun owners, forcing them to rely on paper records, making it even harder to control who has a gun and who should be prevented.

Also, the NRA has helped make it so the system does not just imply bans on gun discussions, it enforces them by law. For example, the Firearm Owners Privacy Act ensures that a doctor can lose their license for asking parents if they know how to store guns safely. Around 1.7 million American children live in homes where guns are not kept out of their reach, a statistic which could be lessened without this law.

Many in congress rely heavily on the NRA’s largesse to remain in office and fear crossing a group with such active supporters who will undoubtedly turn out to vote. The NRA has contributed over $1 million in funding for seven sitting senators, all Republicans, with funding for some stretching back into the 1980s. The heavy reliance of politicians on the NRA for funding means none of these have the incentive to pass gun legislation and to risk their careers. David Jolly, a former Republican Congressman in Florida, had the NRA’s support when he ran against a Democrat in 2014. He won and then easily won the re-election to a full term the following November. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Jolly introduced a moderate gun control bill in the House which would prohibit people on terrorist watchlists from purchasing guns but still allow those who were refused gun permits to argue their case to a federal judge. The NRA immediately pulled its support and Jolly’s bill failed in the House, and he lost the election that year, mostly due to the lack of the NRA’s funds.

Despite the NRA’s message, gun control does help stop shootings, saying otherwise is a null argument and claiming America is an exception is due to the self-aggrandising exceptionalism the US loves to cover itself with. It’s hard to find statistics coming out of the US which can help prove gun regulation works - mostly thanks to the aforementioned oppression of the CDC - but there are worldwide examples of it working. The few that originate from the US show that the spike in gun purchases after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 led to an increase in accidental gun deaths, mostly in the young American children it was aimed at protecting. Furthermore, the Lautenberg amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act disqualified those with a misdemeanor qualification for domestic violence from owning weapons, leading to 17% decrease in the gun murders of female partners and the states with stricter background checks have fewer school shootings. Outside the US, Australia introduced a comprehensive fun control regime after a massacre in Tasmania which dropped the number of mass shootings to zero. Whilst the same legislation would not work in the US, due to the fundamentally different relationship each country has to guns, it does showcase how this legislation does work and will help to stop the senseless deaths of innocent people.

But, there is a potential for America to remove itself from the NRA’s pervasive influence. Following the furore after the shooting and anti-NRA hashtag campaign consumers began to threaten to boycott a number of companies, who then announced plans to cut their ties to the NRA. Whether these changes will last as the intense feelings die down and America becomes focused on another Trump scandal, it is hard to predict. But, 77% of Americans believe Congress is not doing enough to prevent mass shootings, so there is a faint glimmer of hope that if Washington listens to its people there will be some legislation pushed through, however minor, at last. Obama failed repeatedly to do this, mostly due to the Republican controlled House and Senate, and with the student protests there is hope. However, whilst a President who received $30m to his electoral campaign from the NRA tweets: "What many people don't understand, or don't want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing," from Mar-a-Lago in the wake of the Florida shooting, when Obama had finalised gun legislation, it is hard to see any prospect of change.

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