Those who visit the official website of the National Rifle Association of American (N.R.A.) and dig past the discounts offers for paying members, ‘entertaining’ shows focused on rustic gun owners (and their guns), and an article displaying a brave wildlife hunter posing with her gun opposite “political extremists” will find at the bottom an assertion that the N.R.A. is “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.”
At a glance, the casual reader will find nothing wrong with this title.
Founded in 1871 to correct the embarrassing lack of marksmanship demonstrated by Union troops during the Civil War, the N.R.A. has since grown into the preeminent guardian of your guns: their representatives are invited to gun policy town halls, they stand behind gun-friendly legislators, and their stickers grace the bumpers of every Dodge driver who decided to cut into your lane. They dedicate themselves to obstructing any tyrannical bureaucrats who would dare seize the Constitutionally guaranteed means of self-protection from the calloused, humble hands of honest patriots across our great nation.
Or so they want us to think.
Not even a century ago, the National Rifle Association supported key gun-control statutes, including the National Firearms Act of 1934—which mandated the registration of “gangster weapons” such as silencers and machine guns to curb the violent excesses perpetrated by Prohibition-era organized crime—but has since then reversed its position, now viewing any attempt by authorities to regulate the transfer of firearms as a symptom of insidious despotism.
This stance stands in contrast to the one held by many of whom the N.R.A. claims to vehemently represent as of 2018, an overwhelming number of gun owners support universal background checks, preventing the mentally ill from accessing guns, and preventing subjects of temporary restraining orders from purchasing firearms, measures which the N.R.A. continues to oppose despite claiming to speak on behalf of gun owners from sea to shining sea.
Such a contradiction between the wishes of a demographic and their interest group boggles the mind until one considers the possibility that the N.R.A.’s true allegiance belongs to someone other than the gun-possessing community.
Of course, I cannot point a finger at any other collective, for I do not engage in baseless speculation. I will also make no claim of there being a deliberate conspiracy by the N.R.A.—there exists the possibility that their diligent members actually believe the validity of their message. I can, however, present a series of numbers and facts, from which my readers can draw their own conclusions.
One of these numbers is the impressive figure of $228 million—the N.R.A.’s publicly listed revenue for 2010. Another is the 71 million—around a third of their annual dividend— that came from private donations, an unknown amount of which can be sourced to the N.R.A.’s “Ring of Freedom” campaign, conceived to attract corporate patronage. The Violence Policy Center, or V.P.C., also estimates that between 2005 and 2012, around 40 million dollars were provided to the N.R.A. directly from the firearms industry.
Combined with the 20 million the N.R.A. made from selling advertising space in their magazines—much of which consisted of gun and gun accessory ads—these numbers show that, although the N.R.A. is not reliant on gun manufacturers, they may be incentivized to look out for the latter’s interests.
At this point, it seems appropriate to mention that in the same year that the N.R.A. launched its Ring of Freedom program, it also finally succeeded in passing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (2005), which shields both producers and vendors from any accusations of negligence by victims of murder sprees and mass shootings, a law that continues to prohibit many of those hurt in the wake of these events from achieving justice.
To the N.R.A., this law was crucial in thwarting the claim of “greedy trial lawyers seeking to bankrupt the American firearms industry.”
Such dramatic vocabulary is a staple for the N.R.A., which routinely skews the truth to make any individual who proposed gun legislation as an existential threat to American liberty; The pro-gun control Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam is routinely described as somehow “disgraced,” any arguments for gun control can purportedly be dismissed as puerile “flim-flammery”[sic], while California, known for its strict gun laws compared to the rest of the Union, is apparently sinking into a “state of ignorance” under a nefarious “regime,” all because Californian history textbooks dared mention that there exist many interpretations of the Second Amendment.
Such language lends the gun control debate an aura of some fairy tale, an epic fight for Freedom and Liberty, complete with a roster of valiant legislators and devious bureaucrats, and what is a good fairy tale without a main villain? When Obama still resided on Pennsylvania Avenue, the N.R.A. saw in him their main adversary, with Chief Executive of the N.R.A. Wayne LaPierre warning gun owners that Barack Obama sought “a total ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of all handguns.” Even after Obama ended his 2nd term, the N.R.A. still illustrates him as a “head-ache to law abiding citizens.”
In reality, Obama never had such an agenda. In fact, his administration was so silent when it came to gun control, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave him an ‘F’ on their assessment. But that doesn’t matter, because to the N.R.A., the gun debate is black and white, and all is fair is in the war for Freedom and Liberty.
As Wayne LaPierre declared in 2002, “you’re either with us or against us.”
The N.R.A. has never expressed any remorse for propagating this atmosphere of fear, and why would they? The N.R.A. has frequently benefitted from offers from gun retailers to donate some proceeds from every new sale, and a scared American, convinced that his government, his neighbors, his fellow citizens are intent on taking his rights is that much more likely to spend money to feel safe from the touch of a cold trigger in his hand.
The point of this article is not to argue for or against gun control, but to shine some light on the institution that claims to be the champion of gun owner rights. This is an organization that has made a habit of opposing legislation that the demographic it purports to represent adamantly supports, accepts funds from corporate interests whose views may differ from those of customers, and engages in fear-mongering and misinterpretation.
Taking this into consideration, I strongly urge gun owners, even the most conservative, to ask a very simple question: who does your organization speak for?
Dennis Marinovsky is a second-year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He serves as an Editor for Foreign Affairs for the Agora.
Photo courtesy Josh Lopez, Creative Commons