Now that the smoke has settled after tragedy in Parkland, Florida, partisans on the Left and Right have hunkered down in their foxholes to fight a familiar fight. Many on the Left are so exasperated and furious with the lack of gun control measures in Congress that they have taken a fairly new route: calling the National Rifle Association (NRA) a terrorist organization.
We can argue about effectiveness of certain proposals, but if gun control advocates ever want gun owners to come to the table, they need to stop mindless name-calling or risk further dividing the country and neutering their cause.
In looking for a villain to blame for shootings across the country, many have latched onto the NRA, trying to turn the organization into a bogeyman to unite against. We saw this knee-jerk reaction from places like Keith Olberman in 2017 to the The Root to comedians like Michael Ian Black.
While it may feel cathartic in the moment to lash out online, it’s a gross misunderstanding of the NRA and the source of their power in American politics. Even worse, this sends a divisive message to gun owners across the country that further splits our already fractured republic.
The NRA Gets Its Power from Millions of Americans
The NRA is an old organization, founded originally in the wake of the Civil War to teach marksmanship to northerners unfamiliar with firearms. Fundamentally, the NRA is a membership organization. Members pay either hundreds of dollars for a lifetime membership or opt for memberships as expensive as $40 per year. In 2013 the NRA passed 5 million members. If all NRA members lived in a single city, it would be the second-largest in the country, behind only New York.
This big chunk of the American population is the true source of the NRA’s lobbying power. Sure, many firearms companies donate to the NRA, but that money is nothing compared to the power of their membership base. If politics is any predictor, money is hardly the determining factor in political success. We saw Hillary Clinton outspend Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign, and history is rife with monied interests losing out to motivated grassroots.
Further, the NRA accounts for a small portion of the spending on lobbying. In 2017 the NRA spent $5.1 million lobbying Congress on firearms issues, which accounts for just 0.15 percent of the $3.34 billion spent on lobbying last year. The New York Times lists Sen. John McCain as the recipient of the most money from the NRA and affiliated groups, at a total of $7.74 million during his political career. In a small footnote, they clarify these numbers are from 1989 onwards, nearly 30 years of contributions.
While this number might seem staggering, consider that McCain has received more than $208.39 million in campaign contributions since 1989. The NRA’s contributions amount for less than 4 percent of all donations he’s received. The NRA’s contributions and spending don’t buy the support of legislators. In the grand scheme of things, the money the NRA donates to politicians and to lobby Congress is a drop in the bucket.
But that 5-million-member activist group isn’t. NRA members are highly motivated to vote, engage in activism, call Congress, and get involved politically at the state and local levels. They help primary conservatives weak on gun issues and fight for their right to keep and bear arms. The NRA can call upon these people to cripple congressional offices with calls. They can organize events, motivate their members, and get their policies enacted.
Calling 5 Million Americans Terrorists
Because of this member base, the NRA has been able to secure huge wins across the country, from the sunsetting of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004 to the expansion of concealed-carry licensing to the entire nation. And the NRA isn’t alone. Groups like Gun Owners of America go even further in pushing for Second Amendment freedoms the NRA won’t argue for. GOA has made great gains recently in the wake of the NRA’s position change on bump stocks.
The NRA and other gun rights organizations draw their power from their members, and their members know it. So when people call the NRA a terrorist organization, the implication is that its 5 million-plus members are terrorists, too. When people tweet over and over that we are terrorists, putting us in the same bucket as ISIS and al-Qaeda, it’s hardly an invitation to come together and talk about how to solve gun-related issues.
The millions of us who pay for memberships and attend NRA training events are just normal Americans who disagree on policy issues. But by turning normal-American NRA members into some kind of demonic monster to be defeated, histrionic gun-controllers calcify opposition against any kind of even moderate reform.
In addition to the millions of NRA members, Pew estimates 42 percent of Americans live in a household with guns, so that’s tens of millions of people across the country. Polling on firearms ownership also likely underrepresents gun ownership in America (if a stranger randomly called, would you tell him about valuable items in your home?).
Instead of calling millions of their fellow citizens terrorists and promoting radical policies, gun control advocates should look to the NRA’s recent softening on some issues. As The Free Beacon’s Stephen Gutowski has reported, the NRA is pushing legislation that would address “the records reporting failures in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) which were exposed by the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas” and strengthen background checks. The NRA also called on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to review bump stocks in the wake of the shooting in Las Vegas.
While these changes have irked many of the more stalwart gun-rights proponents, it should be received by the Left as willingness to discuss this issue. Unfortunately the gun-control audience has made their tactics clear: Demonize gun owners and demand Australian-style gun confiscation schemes by pushing fake statistics.