2 January 2016

NRA holds a gun to Washington’s head


As President Obama enters his final year in office, there’s one issue that he refers to as the “greatest frustration” of his presidency: gun control.

The latest high-profile mass shooting took place in San Bernardino, California, claiming the lives of 14 people. It was the deadliest attack on American soil since Adam Lanza opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut 2012.

While these mass shootings alert the world’s attention, the ongoing daily scourge of gun violence is frequently neglected. Though it’s difficult to attain exact figures, it’s estimated that 90,000 Americans have died at the hands of gun violence since Sandy Hook just three years ago.

In Britain, we lament the Americans’ obsession with guns which continues to cause such widespread suffering in their country. We don’t understand why their Second Amendment “to keep and bear arms” is a fundamental civil liberty, and we look on in disbelief when mass shootings make Americans hold their guns ever closer.

Britons look across the Atlantic at a seemingly intractable gun-loving culture. However, in doing so we often ignore the key player in the gun debate: the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The most powerful voice of the pro-gun lobby in America, the NRA has worked tirelessly for half a century to prevent gun control measures. Originally founded as a nonpolitical league of sportsmen in the nineteenth century, the association now works to protect the interests of a booming weapons industry, and holds a great deal of control in Washington.

While the NRA claims it is not affiliated with any manufacturers or businesses, its corporate patrons include 22 firearms manufacturers, including 12 makers of assault weapons. The NRA board is full of big names in the weapons industry, such as Pete Brownell, president of Brownell’s internet arms superstore, Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, and Stephen Hornady, whose company uses the slogan “Accurate. Deadly. Dependable.”

As well as having an influence on NRA decisions at the top level, big firearms businesses have contributed huge figures to the NRA’s political arm, including the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) and Political Victory Fund (PVF). Since 1992, arms retailer Midway USA has run a ‘Round-up Program’ for customers to donate to the ILA, by rounding up the total of each order, creating an endowment of $13.5 million and counting. More recently, the manufacturer Ruger has announced its aim to raise $4 million for the ILA by the summer of 2016 through donations of $2 for every firearm sold.

Unlike political parties and politicians, the NRA does not have to disclose the names or contributions of its donors. As a result, the association’s political lobby can spend millions of ‘dark money’ attacking or defending political candidates and government bills.

This money allows the NRA to pile pressure on politicians to back their stance against gun control. In 2012, the NRA spent $16.6 million on TV advertising, consisting of $12 million against their enemy Barack Obama, and they donated to Republicans over Democrats at a 6-1 margin. The association’s PVF ranks candidates based on their positions on gun control to choose who to endorse, making an anti-regulation stance extremely lucrative.
This political activism has its roots in the 1960s, when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought the issue of gun control to the fore. In a sick twist of irony, Kennedy was the only ever Democratic president to have been an NRA member, and was (allegedly) shot by a gun bought by mail-order from an NRA magazine advert.

When Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were also shot five years later, the 1968 Gun Control Act was signed to regulate the arms industry. Opposing the act vociferously, the NRA was soon transformed into a political movement. Its CEO Harlon Carter boasted that he would create an NRA “so strong… that no politician in America mindful of his political career would want to challenge [our] goals”.

Carter would be proud of the modern-day political machine run by CEO Wayne LaPierre. Since he took over in 1991, LaPierre has overseen several legislative successes, including the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, and the passing of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, meaning arms manufacturers could not be held liable for crimes committed with their weapons. Revealingly, LaPierre said “history will show that this law helped save the American firearms industry”.

The NRA’s message has often been based on a fear that the government is not to be trusted, and that America’s people need the Second Amendment for self-defence. President George H.W. Bush resigned from the NRA, offended by Wayne LaPierre’s claims that if assault weapons were banned then “jack-booted government thugs” would “break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us”.

This kind of scare-mongering was echoed in the NRA’s response to San Bernardino. Chris Cox, executive director of the ILA, laid the blame at Obama’s “failed foreign policy”, arguing that “the president cannot keep us safe”, and therefore gun control “would jeopardise our safety”. In Vox magazine, David Roberts dissects this paranoid mentality effectively, arguing that guns have become “a last-ditch effort to impose control on a world slipping away”, with citizens’ protection under threat from “self-righteous liberals”.

The gun lobby’s narrative of an out-of-touch Washington elite trying to steal Americans’ rights is a very popular one, and has allowed anti-establishment figures like Donald Trump to thrive. Recent polling data shows that support for the Second Amendment is as high as ever, with 49% of Americans prioritising gun rights over gun control (2014, Pew Research).

However, the NRA is out of touch itself on gun ownership views: among that 49%, 76% said there should be some restrictions. Meanwhile, a 2015 poll showed that 88% of Americans favour background checks for all gun buyers (CBS), while 70% support a federal database of gun sales (Pew Research): both of which the NRA aggressively opposes.

Most damningly, a 2012 poll conducted by Frank Luntz revealed that NRA members held similar views. Three quarters believed that background checks should be completed after every gun purchase, while nearly two-thirds supported a requirement that gun owners alert police when their firearms are lost or stolen. As former New York Mayor and gun control activist Michael Bloomberg has pointed out, “their members are much more rational than the management of the NRA”.

The NRA maintain that, instead of creating new gun laws, existing controls should be better policed. While it is hard to disagree with the importance of improved enforcement, their refusal to support closing loopholes which make guns so readily available is at odds with the vast majority of Americans. As lives continue to be lost, the NRA helps to block any measures for increased background checks or gun registration.

After San Bernardino, John Oceguera, a Democratic House candidate for Nevada, wrote an open letter to Wayne LaPierre to resign his lifetime NRA membership. Oceguera said he was disappointed that the NRA “opposes any legislation that would help keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, criminals and the mentally ill, and spends millions to stop any action in Congress that could help prevent further violence”. The association failed to respond.

In the 2016 election cycle, the NRA will be ever-present. Republican candidates boast of their pro-gun credentials, while Democratic candidates pledge to stand up to the NRA and succeed where Barack Obama has failed. While the outgoing president points the blame at a Republican Senate and Congress with close ties to the gun lobby, he did nothing in the first two years of his administration when the government was not divided.

The NRA claims to be a defender of civil liberties against a corrupt Washington elite, but in reality it is a financially-motivated pressure group promoting the interests of an arms industry worth billions of dollars. As a result, it fights against regulating a gun culture that has claimed the lives of more citizens since 1968 than all of the wars in America’s history combined. It is out of step with American public opinion and even the views of its own members.

The gun control debate will rage on this year as more lives continue to be lost. Across the Atlantic, we must remember that most Americans, while they stand for the right to bear arms, are not gun obsessed, nor do they oppose a greater level of gun control. The NRA is the biggest obstacle to change. We must hope that Americans will elect a President willing to take them on.

Jack Graham is a video journalist and political commentator who specialises in American politics