The NRA is one of the most successful lobbying groups in the USA, but what do they actually do? Heather Reynolds investigates its history and enduring influence.
The second amendment to the U.S.A constitution was implemented in 1791 and is defined colloquially as “the right to bear arms.” The full amendment reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The intention behind the amendment was to ensure the government could never exert total control over its people. By having a people with the right to bear arms, the will of the people would prevail. The citizens of the U.S.A would have the power to overthrow their government by violent force if it was required.
The second amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms
The battle for gun control began in 1939 with United States v. Miller. This case set the precedent for gun regulation in the U.S. for the first time, wherein the court ruled that a sawn-off shotgun could not be of military use, and thus could be regulated against. This precedent stood for almost seventy years, not without challenge, but was eventually struck down in 2008, during the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The plaintiff, Heller, argued that Washington D.C.’s strict handgun ban was unconstitutional, as it contradicted the second amendment. Unlike the 1939 Supreme Court, which placed a great deal of emphasis on the military ties in the amendment, the 2008 Supreme Court sided with Heller for the abolition of the handgun ban.
The District of Columbia v. Heller was a landmark case and ruled that the second amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, unconnected with the military, as this was the intention in which the amendment was made. This ruling revitalised the movement in the U.S.A to strengthen gun protection laws, and revitalised the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The NRA is among the largest of the special interest lobbying groups in America, with an annual budget of $250 million and a membership that is typically placed between 3 and 5 million. When the NRA began in 1871, it originally pushed for better gun control, playing an active role in lobbying for both the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. However, its origins are not political in nature. It began as a scientific research and promotion group, and provided education for both communities and politicians alike. That is not to say that the NRA were not political, however it was not a key aspect of the organisation at the time. The NRA as an organisation did not become outwardly political until the 1970s forming of its Political Action Committee in 1977, which gave them the power to fund legislators as an organisation, allowing them to further their message.
This change in direction was not just a shift to political lobbying. The 1970s also saw a shift in the primary mission statement of the group; it no longer advocated for gun control. Instead it pushed heavily against any new legislation that could potentially hinder any individual from gaining access to a gun. This change in ethos correlates with a shift in leadership, as well as the shooting of long-time member Kenyon Ballew during a raid by the federal government in 1971. Ballew was under suspicion of stockpiling weaponry, made illegal by the Gun Control Act of 1968. The shooting paralysed Ballew and turned the NRA against the government, and began their lobbying against any gun control measure they attempted to introduce.
The NRA has stuck with this stance ever since, with their members remaining active lobbyists against gun control. They have lobbied against the Manchin amendment, which would have prohibited those on the federal terrorism watchlist from purchasing firearms. Their reasons being, individuals who had not been charged of committing crimes could be added to the watchlist. They have also lobbied against multiple amendments to allow for a national database of gun owners, and against mental health histories being added to background checks.
Between their public appearances and their political lobbying, they leave little room for debate
In 1996, the NRA lobbied to put in place the Dickey amendment in 1996, which disallowed the Centre of Disease Control from allocating any funds towards researching gun related deaths, meaning that no major studies on gun control have been conducted in the US for over 20 years. Outside of their lobbying efforts, they have also appeared in the media several times to dispute claims that gun control could have prevented mass shootings, going as far as to claim that the Sandy Hook Massacre of 2012, in which 20 children were murdered, was faked by the government to push for stronger gun legislation.
The NRA has been pivotal in decrying, delaying, and halting any movement involving gun control at every level of government since 1977, spreading misinformation and twisting circumstances until they appear to be the saner choice. Between their public appearances and their political lobbying, they leave little room for debate on gun control, and no room for any change in the stance of the politicians with whom they are associated.