Throughout its 142-year history, the National Rifle Association has portrayed itself as an advocate for the individual gun owner’s Second Amendment rights. In turn, the NRA relied on those gun owners, especially its 4 million or so members, to pressure lawmakers into carrying out its anti-gun control agenda.
In the last two decades, however, the deep-pocketed NRA has increasingly relied on the support of another constituency: the $12-billion-a-year gun industry, made up of manufacturers and sellers of firearms, ammunition and related wares. That alliance was sealed in 2005, when Congress, after heavy NRA lobbying, approved a measure that gave gunmakers and gun distributors broad, and unprecedented, immunity from a wave of liability lawsuits related to gun violence in America’s cities.
It was a turning point for both the NRA and the industry, both of which recognized the mutual benefits of a partnership. That same year, the NRA also launched a lucrative new fundraising drive to secure “corporate partners” that’s raked in millions from the gun industry to boost its operations.
But that alliance, which has grown even closer in recent years -- and includes ties both financial and personal, a Huffington Post examination has found -- has led to mounting questions from gun control advocates about the NRA's priorities. Is the nation’s most potent gun lobby mainly looking out for its base constituency, the estimated 80 million Americans who own a firearm? Or is it acting on behalf of those that make and sell those guns?
According to a 2012 poll conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 74 percent of NRA members support mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, a position that the NRA has stridently opposed. “There’s a big difference between the NRA’s rank and file and the NRA’s Washington lobbyists, who live and breathe for a different purpose,” Mark Glaze, the executive director of the gun control group, said.
The questions about the NRA's ties to the gun industry, and whether those ties have influenced its agenda, have come to the forefront in the wake of horrific mass shootings last year in Connecticut, Colorado and Wisconsin.
A week after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., school, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and top lobbyist, gave a tense, combative performance at a press conference in which he signalled the organization wouldn't budge from its long-held opposition to most gun control measures.
Instead, LaPierre revealed that the NRA favored putting thousands of armed guards in schools to curb shootings. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.
The NRA’s deep ties to the gun industry dismays some lawmakers who have introduced gun control bills responding to the mass shootings.
“The NRA is basically helping to make sure the gun industry can increase sales,” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat and longtime gun control advocate, told The Huffington Post. McCarthy last week proposed a bill that would ban new sales of new large ammunition clips that increase the lethality of weapons like those used in mass shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and Wisconsin.
“No one is challenging NRA members' right to own guns,” McCarthy said. "We’ve had large mass shootings which have [involved] large mass assault weapons clips. These clips aren’t used for hunting.”
McCarthy’s husband and five other people were shot dead in a brutal assault in 1993 on a New York commuter train by a man wielding a gun with a large-capacity ammunition clip.
The Obama administration is reportedly considering a much broader approach to curbing gun violence: bans on assault weapons and large ammunition clips, mandatory background checks on all gun purchases, increased mental health checks and expanded penalties for carrying guns near schools. On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden said that the White House had determined that "executive action can be taken," though the specifics have not been settled.
The administration is also trying secure backing from big retailers like Walmart that sell guns, with an eye to undercutting the influence of the NRA and gun industry allies -- a strategy that might peel off some of their gun-owner grassroots. Walmart leaders announced this week that they will attend a Thursday meeting at the White House.
Gun control advocates who have lagged badly behind the NRA in fundraising and organization are now are accelerating their efforts. On Tuesday, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who was badly wounded two years ago in a mass shooting, launched a new gun control political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to counter the NRA’s legendary financial and political clout with Congress.
The NRA declined to comment. In recent years, it has argued that defending gun owners and the gun industry is one in the same. Any new laws or regulations that would limit the availability of firearms, or restrict who can own them, would violate the Second Amendment, the organization has said. The NRA has said it does support efforts to keep guns out of the hands of felons, those who have been adjudicated as mentally incompetent, or unsupervised children.
The NRA forwarded a letter to The Huffington Post that the group sent to Congress. The letter is signed by Chris Cox, who runs the NRA lobbying arm. “We know that the facts prove gun bans do not work and that is why they are not supported by the majority of the American people,” the letter said. Cox promised that the NRA would adopt a “constructive” stance in the debate, and reiterated past NRA positions that existing laws need to be better enforced.
In 2011, 32,000 Americans died due to gun violence. The homicide rate in the U.S. is about 20 times higher than in other advanced nations.
'YOUR FIGHT HAS BECOME OUR FIGHT'
Close ties between the NRA and gunmakers go back at least to 1999, when the NRA publicly declared its support for the firearms industry as it prepared to defend itself from a rash of liability lawsuits filed by cities and municipalities.
“Your fight has become our fight,” then-NRA president Charlton Heston declared before a crowd of gun company executives at the annual SHOT Show, the industry's biggest trade show. “Your legal threat has become our constitutional threat," he said.
Following the passage of the shield law that dismembered those lawsuits, the NRA launched a new fundraising drive targeting firearms companies the organization had just helped in a big way. That effort, dubbed "Ring of Freedom," paid off handsomely. Since 2005, the NRA drive has pulled in $14.7 million to $38.9 million from dozens of gun industry giants, including Beretta USA, Glock and Sturm, Ruger, according to a 2011 study by the Violence Policy Center, a group that favors gun control.
The Violence Policy Center study cited an NRA promotional brochure about the corporate partnership drive, noting that LaPierre promised that “this program is geared towards your company’s corporate interests.”
Despite the millions of dollars it has collected from the gun industry, the NRA’s website says “it is not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition.”
Besides its heavy lobbying for the special legal protections for gunmakers and distributors, the NRA pushed successfully in 2004 to ensure that a 10-year ban on assault weapons, enacted in 1994 over strong NRA objections, wasn’t renewed. Since then, annual rifle production by U.S. gunmakers has risen by almost 38 percent, according to federal gun data.
“The NRA clearly benefits from the gun industry,” William Vizzard, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told The Huffington Post. “There’s a symbiotic relationship. They have co-aligned goals much more than 30 or 40 years ago.”
Vizzard noted that the gun industry has evolved slowly in recent decades from a “stodgy and conservative” business, which sold mostly rifles and sporting arms, to one that now traffics in paramilitary weapons and handguns. The NRA and the gun industry “have grown closer as the business has changed,” he said.
The intertwining interests of the NRA and the gun industry are also underscored by the gun company executives on the NRA board.
Among the gun industry heavyweights on the 76-seat NRA board are Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, which makes a military-style rifle sold with high-capacity magazines. Pete Brownell, who heads Iowa-based Brownells Inc., another maker of high-capacity magazines, also sits on the NRA board.
These companies and other gun industry giants have ponied up big bucks to the NRA since 2005, according to a list of NRA corporate partners posted at its last convention.
For instance, Brownells is in an elite group of donors that have given between $1 million and $4.9 million since 2005. Barrett Firearms in the same period chipped in between $50,000 and $99,000.
Another notable donor is Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster, the company that made the AR-15 military-style rifle used by Adam Lanza in his bloody assault on Sandy Hook. The Freedom Group has donated between $25,000 and $49,000 to the NRA’s corporate effort.
The NRA’s most generous gun industry backer is MidwayUSA, a distributor of high-capacity magazine clips, similar to ones that Lanza loaded into his Bushmaster rifle and Glock pistol. These clips increase the lethality of weapons by allowing dozens of shots to be fired before the shooter has to reload. According to its website, Midway has donated about $7.7 million to the NRA through another fundraising program that dates back to 1992. Under this program, customers who buy Midway products are asked to “round up” the price to the next dollar, with the company donating the difference to the NRA.
While the bond between the NRA and the gun industry has tightened, the NRA’s annual budget of about $250 million is still largely derived from other sources, including membership dues, merchandising and ads in NRA magazines. The magazines, though, are chock-full of gun industry ads.
Still, veteran gun control advocates said the NRA’s links with the gun industry may backfire as it deploys its lobbying to stave off new curbs.
“I think it’s much easier for policymakers to defend the NRA when they’re perceived as efforts on behalf of gun owners,” Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said. “That equation changes dramatically when they’re seen as defending the gun industry.”
Whether this prediction holds true in the looming debate over gun control remains to be seen. But in the early-2000s, most lawmakers had few reservations about showing their support for the NRA -- even when the organization was lobbying for a law that would carve out a legal safe haven for the gun industry from civil negligence lawsuits.
'HOW'S THE WAR GOING?'
The fight to pass the liability shield law, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, began after state attorneys general won a landmark $200 billion settlement against tobacco companies on claims they knowingly misled smokers about the dangers of cigarettes.
The success of the smoking cases led more than 30 cities and municipalities to sue the gun industry, citing negligence in the marketing and sale of firearms. The industry also faced increasing negligence lawsuits filed by victims of gun violence.
The most significant of these cases was brought by the families of the 13 people killed or seriously injured over a three-week span by the Washington, D.C.-area snipers, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. The pair used a .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, the same model as Lanza. The weapon was allegedly stolen from a gun shop with a history of weapons "disappearing" from its inventory. The victims' families claimed the shop was negligent, as was the gunmaker, for not better policing problem stores.
In 2004, Bushmaster and the gun dealer settled the lawsuit for $2.5 million in a case that gun control advocates hailed as a "major breakthrough."
The gun company warned that cases like this could bankrupt it. Gunmakers described the legal fight in militaristic terms.
"As I walk through the plant, employees stop to ask me 'How's the war going?'" said Rodd Walton, the top lawyer for Sig Sauer, then called Sigarms, at a congressional hearing in 2005. “It's the war we are fighting against plaintiffs filing junk and frivolous lawsuits."
Though the gun industry has its own lobbying arm, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Conn., its influence pales in comparison with the NRA, which grades lawmakers on their fealty to the Second Amendment, and runs attack ads against candidates it perceives as on the wrong side of the fight. In the wake of its last major defeat -- the 1994 assault weapons ban -- the NRA mounted a successful campaign to push many of the ban's supporters, especially Democrats from rural areas, out of office.
The gun industry found a ready ally in the NRA, as Heston’s 1999 call to arms demonstrated. To aid its cause in Congress, the NRA enlisted one of its most trusted and powerful soldiers: then-Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, a longtime NRA board member.
The NRA and its allies argued that the lawsuits could destroy the gun industry, thus endangering Second Amendment rights.
"The cost of these lawsuits threatens to drive a critical industry out of business ... jeopardizing Americans' constitutionally protected access to firearms for self defense and other lawful uses," Craig said.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence fiercely opposed the bill to protect gunmakers from liability. "This was entirely a fight for the gun industry and more specifically for the worst actors in the gun industry," said Jonathan Lowry, a lawyer for the organization.
One of the bill's congressional opponents was Rep. Mel Watt. (D-N.C.). "I had no animosity toward guns, I had an animosity for setting precedents for other industries," Watt recently told The Huffington Post. Watt said he didn't understand why gunmakers should gain a legal shield available to no other industry.
But the NRA won the day, handily. Craig, who did not respond to a request for comment made through his lobbying firm, spearheaded the effort to get the bill through the U.S. Senate, where it eventually collected 15 Democratic votes, including that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
In May 2006, the NRA's lobbying arm awarded Craig the Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, its highest honor.
'MASSIVE OBAMA CONSPIRACY'
Since the passage of the 2005 law, ties between the NRA and the gunmakers have deepened.
The gun industry and other large corporate and individual donors chipped in $71.1 million in 2011 to NRA coffers, compared with $46.3 million in 2004, according to a Bloomberg News review of NRA tax returns.
The NRA’s fierce lobbying for other laws -- especially bills that have passed in almost every state allowing the carrying of concealed weapons -- also seem to have endeared the pro-gun goliath to many companies. After Wisconsin passed its concealed carry law, Fifer of Sturm Ruger told analysts in an earnings call that sales in the Badger State should get a boost.
As the debate about gun control moves forward, some analysts said the NRA's hard-line rhetoric benefits the gun industry in another way: it boosts sales.
“The NRA is generating fear,” said Vizzard, the former federal agent. “The industry has learned that the more controversy there is about guns, the more guns sell -- whether it’s a legitimate controversy over a bill, or a trumped-up one like, 'Obama’s been re-elected, they’re going to take away our guns.'”
A case in point has been the NRA’s strident rhetoric about the threat posed by President Barack Obama. The president, to the dismay of gun control advocates, failed to back new gun curbs in his first term, even though he endorsed renewing the lapsed assault weapons ban during his 2008 campaign.
Even so, the NRA's LaPierre fiercely opposed Obama's reelection, warning in late 2011 of a "massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment in our country.” Interestingly, stock prices for gunmakers Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson jumped in the wake of Obama’s November win.
After the Newtown massacre, sales jumped again. Given the NRA's past rhetoric, the odds are good that it will characterize any new gun legislation as proof that it was right to be wary of the president's motives.
Even so, the NRA would be wise to consider whether its rhetoric and agressive anti-gun control stance might alienate some of its membership, Vizzard said. Historically, he said, the NRA membership "appears to be more amenable," to certain types of regulation than the NRA leadership is.
The NRA’s ability to intimidate legislators at the polls may also be waning after last fall’s election. The NRA spent $17.4 million on the presidential and congressional contests in last year's general elections, according to Open Secrets, the web site for the Center for Responsive Politics. The NRA failed to unseat Obama and lost six out of seven Senate races, where it spent more than $100,000, according to Media Matters.
That gives hope to Rep. McCarthy as Congress begins to consider new legislation, including her bill to ban the sale of new high-capacity clips: “We’ve had members of Congress who’ve stood up the NRA and they’ve survived elections,” McCarthy said.