No nonprofit group dominated the American cultural conversation in 2018 quite like the National Rifle Association did.
Brash, vitriolic and more partisan than ever, the gun advocacy group was an immoveable fixture in headlines, threatening to wield its outsized political influence against any journalist or candidate that dared to mention gun reform — all in a year that was punctuated by some of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history.
The heft behind the NRA’s threats has always been its massive campaign spending purse, which it has wheeled out in record-breaking force during every federal election between 2010 and 2016.
But in 2018, things have been different. With just days to go until the midterm elections, the NRA’s political spending has taken a nosedive from what it was in previous election cycles — a trend that could be explained by sagging popularity, a strategy shift prompted by outside factors — or both, experts say.
According to October Federal Election Commission filings, the NRA’s lobbying arm has spent around $4.6 million on independent expenditures so far in 2018 — dollars used for advertising, phone banking and other forms of media, such as attack ads against candidates that fall outside of the group’s favor. By comparison, the organization spent close to $15 million on independent expenditures during the most recent midterm cycle, in 2014, marking a more than 69% decrease.
Usually, federal elections kick off a spending bonanza for the NRA; in 2016, for example, the gun rights nonprofit smashed its own record for spending, doling out some $54.4 million into the coffers of pro-gun Republicans. But in September, the Center For Responsive Politics reported that, in addition to a spending slump, an audit had revealed that NRA membership dues had “plummeted” for the second year in a row, leaving the organization at a deficit of $31.8 million in 2017.
Igor Volsky, the executive director for the group Guns Down America, said that broad national trends, like declining gun ownership, could be to blame for the group’s sudden financial woes. But he put equal stock in the possibility that “Americans are really waking up ... and saying that part of the reason we continue to lose lives is because of this lobby.”
“I think generally speaking, it’s really not a pretty picture for the NRA,” Volsky said in a phone interview. “Public opinion has turned against them, Americans have a relationship with guns that’s continuing to diminish, and Americans are also kind of looking around and realizing that we need to have a different kind of conversation about firearms — one focused on bolder solutions that frames the overall political discussion on turf that’s not favorable to the lobby.”
The need for a “different conversation about firearms” comes as a scourge of gun violence continues to plague American cities, putting schools, churches, supermarkets, nightclubs and music festivals firmly in the crosshairs. Among the deadly events since October 2017 were some particularly galvanizing moments, such as a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and faculty members dead, and a massacre at a country music festival on the Las Vegas strip during which 58 people were killed and several hundred others injured.
In response to those events, grassroots coalitions have sprung up to advocate for the swift enactment of common sense gun reform laws. And despite NRA pushback, American lawmakers have responded in kind.
In 2018 alone, 26 states — 15 of which have Republican governors — passed roughly 55 laws aimed at curbing an epidemic of gun violence in America’s cities, according to data from the Giffords Law Center.
To that end, the NRA — an organization wholly tethered to the success of keeping America’s love for firearms intact — is losing.
“This notion that was born in the early 1990s — that the NRA is a super-powerful lobby, and if you go against them they will crush you, and thus progressive candidates shouldn’t really be talking about guns — what’s become clear is that that is really a myth,” Volsky said. “The fact that their spending has decreased is a real indication of that. Part of it may be a cash flow issue, but part of it may also be a recognition that having the NRA spend big for you isn’t necessarily helpful.”
“This notion that was born in the early 1990s — that the NRA is a super-powerful lobby, and if you go against them they will crush you, and thus progressive candidates shouldn’t really be talking about guns — what’s become clear is that that is really a myth.”
In service of that point, 29 major U.S. companies have severed ties with the NRA since the Parkland shooting, including United Airlines, MetLife and, most recently, FedEx. And the NRA’s cashflow has also been stymied by recent actions taken by state leaders, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to target insurance companies that do business with the gun advocacy group.
But perhaps the most significant thorn in the NRA’s side is not a policy, but a man: President Donald Trump, whom the NRA hitched its wagon to shortly after he announced his presidential aspirations in 2015. In the years since, the gun advocacy organization has been a fierce defender of the president’s mandate — but the president himself has proven to be a risky bet.
For one thing, Trump is the lynchpin of an ongoing FBI investigation into whether or not the group illegally accepted funding from a Russian banker to funnel into his nascent campaign. But perhaps more strikingly, the firebrand president — so frequently criticized for contributing to the deepening ideological chasm between America’s two political parties — might also be alienating some of the NRA’s own members.
In June, a Gallup poll found that fewer Americans support the NRA now than they did in 2015 — a trend Volsky said could be linked to the president’s polarizing rhetoric and the way it breeds extremism.
To some extent, Volsky clarified, the NRA has always dealt in extremism: the group aligned itself with the primarily white and rural militia movement of the 1990s, and was forced to create daylight between itself and the convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in the same decade after it was discovered that he had appropriated the group’s hawkish rhetoric.
But after years of seeking to broaden their appeal, Volsky said, the NRA has once again backed itself into a corner, throwing its unwavering support behind a president who on Tuesday was protested by thousands after he arrived in Pittsburgh to comfort mourners in the wake of the anti-Semitism-fueled mass shooting there on Oct. 27.
“With Trump, they’re really back to a very dangerous play, which is fomenting the kind of violence and using the kind of rhetoric that this president uses,” he said.” Which is clearly also creating real world violence in our country.”