Here's How the NRA is So Freakishly Effective in the Gun Control Debate


The NRA focuses its efforts on one specific, positive goal: retain or expand the current rights of gun owners. The organization does a masterful of job of capitalizing on the association between NRA members, other gun owners, and their favored firearms. They have memorable experiences, hobbies, and passions on their side. The NRA’s bevy of websites, accessible through, tout this message to the fullest: athletes, families, veterans, philanthropists, and the all-powerful Average Joe line up along the gun range in solidarity, training their sights on the same target.

Gun-control advocates push for negatively framed aims like fewer deaths, fewer injuries, less violence (granted, an overwhelmingly positive result if realized). This strategy fails for the same reason that not everyone donates to save injured animals after viewing that famously depressing Sarah McLachlan commercial: It's a downer message missing a clear hope of meaningful change. Each widely publicized shooting is more heart-wrenching, terrible, and puzzling than the last. But the pain from these horrific events numbs or fades quickly, and with that emotional detachment goes the response. Those events are not movement-sustaining or galvanizing in an enduring way.

It’s also worth wondering if this recurring-tragedy narrative isn’t wearing a bit thin with the American public. These arguments and anecdotes now meet instantly with dismissive labels of “opportunism.” Indeed, you’ll find no specific shooting referenced in this article, because each side of this debate has for too long stacked up the bodies of slain men, women, and children as evidence supporting its own agenda (see how easy it is to do that?).

Aside from having a more marketable message, though, the NRA also has more money to market it. A whole lot more. This is the factor invoked most frequently in explaining the NRA’s outsized influence in Washington — and for fairly good reason. There’s definitely a marked disparity in resources employed between the two sides of the gun debate. The NRA has brokered the majority of the gun lobby’s $46 million in political election expenditures since 2010, compared with only $11 million from the gun-control front (and this only after Bloomberg began funneling millions of his own money in that direction).

Campaign contributions from the NRA are indeed strategic and significant, and the organization has long dominated lobbying on the issue. Gun control’s previous heaviest hitter on the lobbying front was the Brady Center, pitting $40,000 against the NRA’s $2.5 million in lobbying muscle. However, money alone does not explain the NRA’s outsized influence in Washington. Surely many (overwhelmingly Republican) members of Congress are grateful for the $2,000-12,000 they received in campaign contributions from the NRA, but in campaigns that routinely cost two, four, and even $16 million, this is merely a small-caliber bullet dropped in a bucket. No, the answer for NRA's sway over politicians goes deeper than that.

In addition to donations for candidates, the NRA isn’t shy about going negative. In fact, aligning oneself in ideological opposition to the NRA is a surefire way to earn a severe challenge to your election bid. During the 2011-2012 election cycle, the NRA spent more than double ($13 million) against Democrats and a few unfavored Republicans than they spent in favor of their chosen candidates (see figure below). The NRA is an even stauncher enemy than it is a friend.

Incorporating the outside spending statistics begins to explain the NRA’s amplified volume, but its overall spending puts it only 54th in terms of donor volume in the past two decades. Why don’t politicians similarly fear the ire of the National Association of Letter Carriers or the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union (both higher on the contributions’ list than the NRA)? The NRA holds Washington at gunpoint on its chosen issues because it has turned 4-5 million (depending on who you ask) card-carrying, dues-paying, gun-toting members into one of the nation’s most formidable voting blocs. Yes, 90% of Americans support background checks for gun purchasers, but far less than 90% of Americans vote exclusively on the issue of background checks. The NRA’s minority is the clarified butter of gun enthusiasts — an intensified, concentrated sample that acts with powerful uniformity.

Whether or not Barack Obama actually has plans to personally invade the homes of America’s 100 million gun owners and forcibly remove their firearms is irrelevant. The NRA has achieved great success in making this event seem possible to the Americans who fear it the most. The NRA has perfected the use of slippery-slope arguments and doomsday predictions to activate a passionate, idealistic, and focused base. These arguments go something like, “if you get into a car, then you’re more likely to get into a car accident; therefore, all automobiles must be banned” (except the NRA would add that people cause accidents, not cars). Never mind that it’s one of the clearest logical fallacies: It works, dammit. It also helps that millions of Americans are willing to vote with their guns, deciding largely off this one issue.

The rights of children to lives free of violence, allowing only those without violent criminal records or histories of mental illness to possess firearms, and other similar aims are quite positive in nature. If the gun-control lobby can unite behind messages and policies such as these, it might eventually wrest the narrative away from gun rights advocates. It’d also help if gun-control advocates managed to drum up an additional $30-80 million in advance of the next congressional election season.