How Powerful is the NRA?

The NRA’s influence in Washington doesn’t come from spending money directly on elections; it comes from the organization’s ability to mobilize its vast and extremely engaged membership, says Benjamin McKean of Ohio State University

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As the debate over gun control heats up in the aftermath of the shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, increasing scrutiny is being placed on the role of the National Rifle Association, also known as the NRA. Gun control activists are urging politicians to refuse campaign donations from the NRA and more and more companies are cutting their ties with the NRA, but just how powerful is the NRA and where does its power come from?

Assistant Professor Benjamin McKean has thought about this issue. He is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University. He recently wrote an article about the NRA for Jacobin Magazine called “Blood Money and Mass Membership.” Thanks for joining us today, Ben.

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Pleasure to join you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Ben, immediately following the mass shooting, a lot of scrutiny was placed on the donations that Republicans received from the NRA. However, according to the Washington Post, the NRA only donated $4.2 million to congressional campaigns since 1998. Now, in the scheme of things, this isn’t a lot of money and it is not where we should place our criticism, although of course receiving money from any corporate or gun manufacturers and so on needs to be scrutinized. But if this isn’t so influential in terms of the donations that the Republicans are getting from the NRA, where does the NRA’s influence in Washington and in our society come from?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, you’re certainly right that it’s not a lot of money from the perspective of congressional Republicans. Paul Ryan, for example, the congressional leader from Wisconsin, is the top recipient of NRA money. The money that he received is still only about 1 percent of the money that he raised in the most recent election cycle. So it’s not nothing, but it’s clear that there are other people who have more money or are spending more money on this. Now, the NRA is also spending money independently. These so-called independent expenditures aren’t direct donations but they’re still spent on advertising for one candidate or against another candidate, so there’s some money that those numbers aren’t capturing.

But overall, the NRA’s power isn’t primarily from spending money directly on elections. Their money primarily comes from having an extremely engaged membership. They claim about 5 million members. Now, those numbers are probably slightly inflated. They’ve admitted as much when they say that people who sign up for lifetime memberships never come off the rolls, even when there’s reason to believe they may have passed away. But even so, they have a hugely engaged mass membership, which I think to people who are not people shoot for sport or hunters, a lot of that engagement is invisible, and so people focus on the money because that’s something they can quantify. They don’t realize that the NRA is training literally a million people a year in how to use firearms. It plays a big role in licensing firearm instructors, provides a whole set of services. There’s a kind of ecosystem of the NRA, gun shooting competitions and so forth, that are invisible to people who aren’t interested in guns.

What you find with the NRA members is a lot of people join the NRA because they like the services that the NRA provides. They want to get the training. They want to get the certification. They’re not joining primarily for political reasons but once they’re members, the NRA is able to engage them in political education by doing things like sending out report cards rating politicians on how well the respect the Second Amendment and so forth. As a result of that, they’re really able to mobilize a very engaged membership in voting without … and that’s much more important to the politicians than the money that they get directly.

SHARMINI PERIES: Ben, we know that the NRA gets half of its funding from its members, the 5 million or so members, but how does it get the rest of the money it needs, and what kind of money does it need every year?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, the NRA gets, as you suggested, about half of its $350-odd million budget from its membership, from dues and from other fees that it charges. That’s a lot of money already. But beyond that, it also does attract donations from gun manufacturers who give both as part of charitable giving but also will provide in-kind goods and services because they get to advertise then in competitions and they get to connect to NRA members who are, of course, their customers.

SHARMINI PERIES: I mean, this is a lot of money that they have between the membership and the donations that they receive, but how do they spend this money?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, as you can see, a lot of it’s not on direct political giving. A lot of it is on providing the services that make it an attractive organization for people to join. A lot of it is on the kind of communication that they have with their membership, so through producing mailings, through producing newsletters, NRATV, all those different kinds of ways of communicating are an important part of the organization’s budget.

SHARMINI PERIES: What is NRATV?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, NRATV is an online kind of channel for NRA members. It’s become, I think, more prominent lately as it’s become an increasingly politicized vehicle. A lot of the communication that the NRA has with its members isn’t overtly political, it’s about guns as a hobby. But on NRATV, it’s become increasingly clear that there have been overt appeals to racial resentment, demonization of groups like Black Lives Matter and so forth, ways of really explicitly communicating a politicized identity to NRA members.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, all the ways in which the NRA works in communities, training, making people feel as if they’re a member of a very important organization that has influence in Washington and so forth, which would you think is its most powerful mechanism in terms of communicating with the public?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, I think that they’re very good at communicating with their members in a whole host of ways because they’re able to reach them both through things like newsletters, through online communication, things like NRATV, but also probably most importantly, in person. Once you’re a part of the NRA, if you’re engaged in hunting, if you’re engaged in sport shooting, you’re going to be meeting other people who are also NRA members just in the course of engaging in your recreational activities, and so it’s a lot easier for them to create a kind of political identity for people. It’s a lot easier for them to get people to think of themselves as NRA members than it is for gun control groups, where people don’t have as many non-political reasons to associate.

As a result of that, although the NRA claims around 5 million members, when you poll the American people and ask how many people are NRA members, up to 15 million people identify as NRA members even though they’re not paying dues. I think that shows how powerful this network that the NRA has can be, that it’s really changing how people think about themselves even when they’re not signing up but just because they’re participating in the same kinds of activities that NRA members do.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, many companies are withdrawing their support from the NRA, such as Delta Airlines, Avis Rent a Car, MetLife Insurance, and others. Do you think that the tide might be turning against the NRA as a result of not only this recent shooting but a series that has led up to this?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: I do think that that’s a real possibility. I think that severing these corporate connections is actually a very important way for activists to be going after the NRA. I think it’s likely to be effective because it hits the NRA where it hurts. It impairs their ability to deliver the services that make it an attractive organization for people to join. For example, the Chubb Insurance Company, which was the insurance company providing underwriting for the NRA for a product that they offered that offered insurance to help shield NRA members from legal liability if they were involved in a self-defense shooting while they had a concealed carry permit, and that insurance company severed their relationship with the NRA over the weekend, which means that it’s no longer possible for the NRA to offer that product.

So I think something like that really does make a big difference in the NRA’s power, and I think that’s part of why you’re seeing so much pushback. For example, yesterday the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia threatened on Twitter to go after Delta Airlines because Delta decided to no longer offer a discount to NRA members. I think that that’s not a reaction you would’ve seen a politician in Georgia have before, with Delta such an important employer in that state. So I think you can see that this is … It seems like there’s a possibility this is hitting the NRA where it hurts.

SHARMINI PERIES: Yeah. It is a Delta hub, isn’t it?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Yeah, it’s the headquarters.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, describe for us what NRA members’ identity looks like. I know affiliation with the organization is very important. They seem to be largely white. This makes it, as an organization, an organization that is largely supported by its members and its activities represent that, but what does this mean in terms of the cultural significance of how the NRA influence policy and then the impact of it?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, the modern NRA as a really active organization is really a product of the 1970s and the backlash to the 1960s and the urban uprisings then. I think part of what you saw was the NRA, for 100 years, really being an organization for hunters that wasn’t especially involved in politics. In the past four decades or so, what you’ve seen is you’ve seen a real radicalization and, as you suggested, a kind of racialization of the organization.

Right now, if you want to predict a person’s position on gun control, race is actually a pretty good proxy. The Pew Research Center did a survey last year asking people what they thought was more important, gun ownership rights or gun control. Every race said that gun control was more important except for whites, who said that gun ownership right were more important by 55% to 40%.

So what you see with the NRA is a kind of mobilization of this identity of associating a certain kind of whiteness with citizenship where part of what you’re protecting is your identity against the changing country. I think that part of what has made the organization potent is their ability to mobilize that. But I think that what you’ve seen perhaps over the past two weeks is the limits of that strategy as, I think, many of the NRA members who are there for services are beginning to feel like the NRA’s identity is getting ahead of where they want to be. I think the NRA runs into a risk that if they become an organization that people who identify as ordinary Americans don’t want to be associated with, then that would, I think, dramatically weaken their power.

SHARMINI PERIES: Where does the history of this identity come from in terms of God, guns, and country?

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: Well, I mean, obviously it’s very difficult to disentangle from the role of race in American history more broadly. But I think that part of what you’ve seen is the NRA create a kind of Second Amendment fundamentalism where they think that a primary function of the Constitution is the Second Amendment. They think that the right to bear arms is essentially the guarantee of all the other rights, and so they’ve really enshrined that in a place that it hasn’t had for most of American history.

But there is a continuity with that. You’ve got a history of white citizens demanding their right to bear arms to keep control, for example, over slaves, over indigenous people. I do think that there is part of that tradition that the NRA might be drawing on, suggesting that this has been a way that white people in the country have long tried to keep order, and they think it continues to be necessary. I think other interpretations of the Constitution obviously are possible that doesn’t give the Second Amendment a pride of place like that and that sees things like the First Amendment as being a more important right that’s enshrined there.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Ben. I thank you so much for joining us today.

BENJAMIN MCKEAN: My pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.