While the public-health community has begun to apply the research and prevention approaches it has used successfully to fight other epidemics, the traditional voices in the gun control debate–like two weary armies in an endless war of attrition–continue to attack each other with the same cliches and outdated solutions they have proposed for decades. All the while, gun violence remains a growth industry.
National Rifle Association
Although the National Rifle Association is more than 120 years old, the staunch political stance that defines today’s NRA dates from the group’s annual meeting in Cincinnati in 1977. Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s friction had grown between two factions within the NRA. The Old Guard remained primarily interested in hunting and the shooting sports. To the New Guard, gun ownership was no longer a recreational issue but a political one. Their concern was battling gun control.
In what is known as the Cincinnati Revolt, the New Guard led members in a coup to oust the Old Guard. The head of the politicized NRA was Harlon B. Carter, who would lead the “new” NRA though a period that can rightly be viewed as its golden age. Membership leapt from 900,000 to nearly three million, and the organization gained its reputation as the invincible “gun lobby.”
Today, the NRA boasts annual revenues in excess of $100 million. Its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), has an annual budget of close to $30 million and a staff of more than 50. For the ’92 elections, the NRA’s political action committee, the Political Victory Fund, contributed $1.7 million to House and Senate candidates, placing it ninth among all PACs in congressional spending.
After a series of political missteps and internal scandals in the late 80’s, ILA head Wayne LaPierre took over as head of the main organization, announcing the arrival of the second “new” NRA and swearing to maintain a “hard line” against gun control. He has also worked to expand the NRA’s membership base among women and youth.
To do so, LaPierre has also attempted to reshape NRA’s public image from that of “anti-gun control” to “anti-crime.” In outlining the rationale for this move to its members, the NRA offers a fairly honest appraisal of its purpose: “Armed criminals aren’t just the greatest threat to your life and family. They’re also the greatest threat to your Second Amendment right to own a gun. It is their violent misuse of firearms that makes your firearms the target for gun-ban groups, anti-gun politicians and the media.”
More calls for gun control combined with its desire to expand its membership have pushed the NRA to establish more open ties with the firearms industry. As Ron Stilwell, then president of Colt’s Manufacturing Co., told the Wall Street Journal two years ago: “The NRA traditionally didn’t want to hear from the industry and had no dialogue with it. Now we are all learning to live and work together and present a more united front.” One manifestation of this new relationship is an NRA program that utilizes the country’s network of more than 40,000 stocking gun dealers to help sign up new members.
Such expansion in its membership belies a recognition by the NRA that increasing firearms violence has brought a shift in the gun-control debate. More Americans–both gun owners and non-gun owners–endorse weapon restrictions. According to 1988 and 1989 Gallup Polls, more than 70 percent favor banning Saturday Night Special handguns; 72 percent favor banning assault weapons; 75 percent favor the 1988 ban on nondetectable plastic firearms. Among gun owners, the numbers are only slightly lower: 66 percent favor banning Saturday Night Specials; 68 percent favor banning assault weapons; 74 percent support the ban on plastic guns. And while it’s not surprising that a 1993 Louis Harris poll found that nearly nine out of 10 Americans support a national waiting period, the poll also found that 52 percent favor a ban on handguns–the first time a majority has favored such a measure.
One result of this shift is that for the first time in recent memory, the NRA has begun to lose political battles, the most notable examples being the 1988 Maryland Saturday Night Special referendum, 1990’s Senate assault-weapons vote, the addition of a limited assault-weapons ban to last year’s Senate crime bill and the long-awaited passage of the Brady bill last year.
A testament of the NRA’s reputation is that each loss is often accompanied by a flurry of news article questioning whether it marks the organization’s demise. Although the importance of such losses cannot be underestimated, such questions are wishful thinking. The NRA has only gone from being omnipotent to merely powerful.
While the press and elected officials have focused almost exclusively on the NRA’s political wins and losses, the lobby’s greatest success in battling gun control has actually been its ability to control the vocabulary and terms of the debate–presenting firearms violence solely as a crime issue–and shifting the focus away from the country’s gun manufacturers to itself.