Why Is the NRA So Powerful?

How the gun lobby leverages modest resources into outsized influence.

A wall of semi-automatic rifles at the National Rifle Association Annual Meetings and Exhibits
A wall of semi-automatic rifles at the National Rifle Association Annual Meetings and Exhibits

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images.

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, for withholding documents pertaining to the “Fast and Furious” program that allegedly put guns in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. Seventeen Democrats voted for the measure after the National Rifle Association indicated future endorsements could ride on the vote. The NRA is considered by many the most powerful lobbying group in the country, despite relatively modest financial resources and just 4 million members. What makes the NRA so influential?

Focus and emotion. Groups with large constituencies often address a wide variety of issues. The AARP, for example, attempts to influence such diverse issues as Social Security, health care, energy, and ballot access laws. The NRA focuses almost exclusively on gun control, which enables its leaders to doggedly pursue their legislative ends. Perhaps more important, many NRA members are as single-minded as the organization itself. Polls often show that more Americans favor tightening gun control laws than relaxing them, but gun rights advocates are much more likely to be single-issue voters than those on the other side of the question. As a result, the NRA can reliably deliver votes. Politicians also fear the activism of NRA members. They’re widely believed to be more likely to attend campaign events, ring doorbells, and make phone calls to help their favored candidates—or defeat their opponents—than senior citizens, members of labor unions, or public school teachers.

For the most part, the NRA’s lobbying arm didn’t gin up the emotional fervor of firearms advocates—it resulted from it. The NRA was founded shortly after the Civil War by Union veterans who felt the Confederacy only lasted as long as it did because of the Southerners’ superior marksmanship. For nearly a century, the NRA catered to competitive shooters and merely dabbled in politics. As with so many other American cultural issues, things changed in the 1960s. Crime soared. Armed members of the Black Panthers began following police officers around American cities. Riots broke out in Newark and Detroit, and some government officials blamed easy access to guns. Assassins killed two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, under pressure from terrified constituents, Congress passed the first major gun control legislation since the 1930s. A backlash ensued, as American firearms enthusiasts feared the government planned to take their guns. They pushed the relatively apolitical NRA to lobby on their behalf. When the leadership balked in 1977, a group of activists staged a coup. The new leaders commissioned a poll, which found that lobbying was the members’ biggest priority. They turned the group into a political force, with the Second Amendment as their bible.

Today, the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, has become expert at maintaining the siege mentality that birthed it. Former NRA leader Wayne LaPierre famously attacked gun control legislation in 1995 as giving “jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” More recent mailings have claimed that the group is “fighting a multi-front battle with anti-gun radicals in the Obama administration” willing to use “ANY means necessary to DESTROY our freedoms.”

The NRA also has a better ground game than many other lobbying organizations. The group relies on scores of independent gun magazines, thousands of gun shops, and gun clubs across the country to help spread its message well beyond its membership. Many small lobbying groups with enthusiastic members have exploited similar viral communications networks to splendid effect. The American Homebrewers Association, for example, with fewer than 15,000 members, has used shops, clubs, and amateur podcasters to help pass beer-friendly legislation in five different states in the last two years.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, author of Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist; Robert Spitzer SUNY Cortland, author of Encyclopedia of Gun Control & Gun Rights; Joseph P. Tartaro of the Second Amendment Foundation and TheGunMag.com; and Adam Winkler of UCLA, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right To Bear Arms in America.