(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
This article was reported in collaboration with the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, with support from The Puffin Foundation.
A freckled boy with tousled hair looks into the camera and says, “I am NRA Country.” A black guy with dreadlocks echoes him, as do two pretty young women suppressing giggles, saying in unison, “We are NRA Country.” Then there’s country music star Justin Moore, leaning against a farm fence in worn jeans and a cowboy hat, strumming a guitar as scenes of Americana flash by. “You don’t have to look far—all you gotta do is look around,” he sings. “This is NRA Country.”
In Moore’s video, NRA Country looks like a wonderful place. The girls are pretty, the skies are blue, and people seem to spend a lot of time outdoors. But appearances aside, all is not well in NRA Country: according to the National Rifle Association, it faces existential peril in the form of Barack Obama’s possible second term.
Well before the Aurora theater shooting and the Sikh temple massacre returned guns to the political radar, the NRA adopted the poker-table slogan “All In!” for the 2012 election season. The NRA’s long-serving executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has dubbed the looming vote “the most dangerous election in our lifetime.” In mailings this summer, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund proclaimed that donations “could mean the difference between the survival or destruction of our Second Amendment freedoms.”
The NRA’s beef with Obama could be bad news for the president. The gun group, which grades candidates on their fidelity to the cause on a scale from A+ to F, claims an instrumental role in defeating John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000 and the Democrats’ Congressional majority in 1994. (“The NRA is the reason Republicans control the House,” Bill Clinton famously said after that election.) While some analysts believe its political power is overstated, the NRA is chiefly feared because it speaks to those voters who will cast their ballot based on the gun issue alone—a unity of purpose that gun control supporters lack.
Central to this fearsome image of the NRA is the notion that it is more than just an organization with a lot of money (it spent $244 million in 2010) and 4 million members (a minority of America’s estimated 70 million–plus gun owners)—that it is, in fact, the vanguard of America’s mainstream working-class culture. It isn’t just that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi disagree with the NRA on gun policy. It’s that their attitude on guns puts them out of step and out of touch with what real blue-collar Americans care about. As a recent headline in the NRA’s magazine asked: “Our America or Obama’s?”
But like the view through the scope of a high-powered rifle, that cultural lens magnifies one aspect of America’s gun politics to the exclusion of all else. Among other things, it obscures the fact that Obama has done little to nothing on gun policy. It glosses over the plain truth that the gun control battles of the 1990s are over and that the NRA has largely won. And most important, it ignores the fact that the gun issue is very much about money—money that the NRA banks with each new member, that the gunmakers earn with each new gun.
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There is no divorcing the politics of guns from their profits. America’s gun lobby and gun industry both benefit from creating a fearful vision of life in the United States—a picture of criminals constantly menacing our families and a government hellbent on taking our guns—that is very effective at selling weapons. In fact, in large part because of the way anxieties about his gun policies have been manipulated, the Obama era has been a golden age for firearms manufacturers, and the run-up to Election 2012 could be for Glock and Remington what the Christmas shopping season is for Macy’s and Sears: a time to cash in before the narrative changes.
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According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation—a trade association for the country’s gun and ammunition manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retailers as well as its shooting ranges—the American firearms industry employed more than 98,000 people last year and generated an overall economic impact of $31.8 billion. The industry’s employment rate is up 31 percent since 2008. Firearms, says NSSF senior vice president Larry Keane, have been “a shining light in an otherwise dark and bleak economic picture.”
The boom in the firearms industry also shows up in manufacturing statistics maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. From 2007 to 2011, the number of firearms manufactured in the United States grew by 63 percent, led by pistols, which posted a 104 percent jump.
That freshly minted arsenal translates into profits for gunmakers. Only a handful of firearms companies are publicly owned, but those that are have had good news for investors. Winchester, which makes ammunition, reported a backlog in January worth $137 million—and while 2011 wasn’t as lucrative as 2009 or ‘10, the company said it was still “the third most profitable year in at least the last two decades.” Remington sold more than 1 million guns and 2 billion rounds of ammunition in 2011. Sturm, Ruger was so overwhelmed by new business earlier this year—its gross profit jumped by 66 percent between January and June—that it imposed a brief hiatus on new orders.
Many factors—fear of crime during the economic downturn, better promotion of hunting by state wildlife agencies, more women taking up shooting, veterans returning home with a deeper attachment to guns—have likely fueled the boom in gun sales. But Obama’s influence is given singular credit. As Remington’s then-CEO, Ted Torbeck, put it in a May 2009 conference call with investors, “demand…has risen amidst concerns that the new administration will further restrict the use or purchase of firearms and ammunition and levy additional taxes on these products.”
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Like all companies, gunmakers face threats to their profits and survival, such as uncertain access to necessary commodities (including steel and wood) and a dependence on key retail suppliers like Walmart. But the biggest challenge to the industry is, ironically, the durability of its product. Longtime gun industry lobbyist Richard Feldman says he used to chide gunmakers: “You make a product for $300, and somebody could buy this revolver and, by the time they are 80, they’ll have fired $10,000 worth of ammunition through it.”
In short, guns aren’t like shoes that wear out every couple of years or cars that might last a decade. A gun that’s taken care of should last a lifetime. Such a durable product can be a problem for the industry that makes it. That’s why it’s crucial not only to attract new customers, but to get gun owners to buy multiple guns. And that’s where the twin fears of crime and confiscation—hyped by America’s massive gun marketing complex—come in.
The US murder rate is 44 percent lower than it was in 1995, but you wouldn’t know it reading the gun press. Most gun publications—like Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times and Rifle Firepower—are glorified catalogs in which the line between editorial and advertising is virtually nonexistent. Many are selling more than guns; they’re also pitching fear. Take the cover of July’s Handguns magazine, which bellowed “RAGING BULL: Why stopping an attacker is harder than you think,” or June’s Combat Handguns, which offered features like “HOME INVASION AFTERMATH: When Survival Isn’t Enough.” The summer issue of Personal & Home Defense provided readers with “panic room essentials,” tips on selecting “your three-gun battery” and an exhortation to “Survive Violent Attacks—Don’t Be a Victim.”
Gunmakers play a role as advertisers and promoters of alarmist content. Hornady, a major ammunition manufacturer, sponsors a raft of TV shows, including Personal Defense, whose current-season promos claim—with no clear statistical basis—that the United States sees 71,000 home invasions a year. Gunmakers like to stir fear on their websites, too: Mossberg makes a none-too-subtle allusion to post-Katrina violence when it says that, “whether it’s survival in the backcountry, or hurricane season on the coast, one can never be too prepared for the unexpected.”
Tom Diaz, a researcher at the Violence Policy Center, calls it “fear marketing.” And it’s clearly effective: Remington boasts that its “brand awareness” is second only to Nike’s.
But while gun-themed TV shows and magazines pump up the threat of crime, the undeniable decrease in violence nationwide naturally limits its marketing potential. Fortunately, the fear of gun regulation and confiscation is every bit as powerful and much more malleable. It can always be lurking right around the corner. Just ask the NRA.
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The NRA has been sounding the alarm over Barack Obama since at least 2008, when it called the then–presidential candidate a “serious threat to Second Amendment liberties” and later launched a website called GunBanObama.com. After the president was elected, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action warned, “American gun owners will soon be the targets of an attack dog named Rahm Emanuel.” Barely two months into the Obama administration, the NRA put out an alert called “The Coming Storm,” which described a “wish list of gun-prohibition measures” that the gun control lobby had presented to the White House. Gun sales—which fell 23 percent the first year that George W. Bush was president—soared 23 percent in 2009.
Yet the “coming storm” blew past without incident, as Obama took up none of the wish list measures. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 that the administration wanted a new ban on “assault weapons,” but the bid was quickly dropped. Instead, Obama signed a bill that year permitting guns to be carried in national parks. “Obama has done everything in his power to stay away from the gun issue,” Feldman says.
Obama’s inaction on guns earned him an F in 2009 from the pro–gun control Brady Center. Yet on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, the NRA warned that unless people voted for a pro-gun Senate, Obama would be in the position to pick a Supreme Court that “puts democracy in peril.”
In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in the head and six others killed by Jared Lee Loughner, who was wielding a Glock handgun with an extended magazine, Obama gave a nice speech but offered no policy. When the Trayvon Martin shooting in February pointed up the problems with “Stand Your Ground” laws, Obama delivered a moving statement but no substance.
Yet the NRA’s rhetoric reached a fever pitch this spring and summer, with the association warning in a fundraising letter that a second term for Obama would give him “free rein to declare all-out war on our gun rights and rip the Second Amendment right out of our Bill of Rights.”
The “Fast and Furious” controversy gave the gun lobby what at least looked like live ammo rather than blanks. The now infamous operation was tragically mishandled and made worse by the administration, which proffered false statistical claims in its own defense. But much of the manufactured outrage on the right clearly sought to vindicate its depiction of Obama as a gun-grabber. After the probe into the scandal, the White House imposed a modest regulation requiring gun stores in the four Southern border states to report to the ATF whenever anyone purchases more than one rifle with a detachable magazine within five days. NRA allies introduced legislation to keep the rule from being implemented, and the NSSF and NRA sued unsuccessfully to block it.
The intertwined fears of crime and gun confiscation were on display months later in the wake of the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. The Denver Post reported a spike in gun sales as people prepared either for their own encounter with a redheaded lunatic or a government crackdown on guns.
The latter doesn’t seem very likely. During the Aurora shooting, at least four men died after throwing themselves into the line of fire to protect others, but the Obama White House has betrayed no such instinct. In speeches and statements, the administration called for stronger background checks but stressed over and over that it intends to “protect the Second Amendment rights of the American people.”
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Gun manufacturers and the gun lobby haven’t always seen eye to eye. When Smith & Wesson struck a deal with the Clinton administration in 2000, agreeing to a long list of changes to its products and business practices—including limiting the size of magazines for its semi-automatic weapons and avoiding dealers who sold a disproportionate number of guns later used in crimes—the gun lobby howled. It led a boycott of Smith & Wesson that nearly killed the company; in a span of just two years, the number of guns manufactured by Smith & Wesson fell by 44 percent. “They just beat the crap out of Smith & Wesson for a while, then let them back in,” says Diaz. Colt Firearms and Sturm, Ruger have been similarly punished for crimes against the Second Amendment.
There remain differences of tone and substance between the industry, represented by the NSSF, and the political gun rights movement, anchored by the NRA. For example, according to Keane, the NSSF isn’t nearly as concerned as the NRA about a potential United Nations Treaty on Small Arms, which would regulate international transfers of guns (although negotiations over the still-vague treaty broke down in July). And after the mass shooting in Tucson, the NSSF engaged in a White House–sponsored dialogue among gun control groups and gun rights supporters about ways to reduce violence; the NRA did not.
These occasionally divergent approaches reflect what have traditionally been different goals: gunmakers want to sell guns, and the gun lobby wants to fight (and re-fight) an ideological battle. But Feldman believes that “the industry feels more beholden to the NRA today than they ever did,” because of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005—the law that essentially blocks federal lawsuits brought by municipalities wishing to hold gun manufacturers accountable for the bloodshed their products helped create. The shield legislation saved the industry, ending what Keane characterizes as “a concerted effort, guided by the [Clinton] White House, to bankrupt and destroy the firearms industry through frivolous lawsuits.” While at least one such lawsuit—by the city of Gary, Indiana—is still working its way through the courts, thirty-four states have, like the feds, barred public interest suits against gunmakers.
Not surprisingly, the gun industry today is generous in its support of the NRA and its message. The NRA’s annual conference counted the gun seller Cabelas and scope makers Leupold, Trijicon and Bushnell among its sponsors. Ammo maker Steve Hornady and gun parts manufacturer Pete Brownell are on the NRA’s board of directors. Taurus buys an NRA membership for everyone who purchases one of its guns. Rifle and shotgun maker Harrington & Richardson features a link to NRA legislative updates on its homepage. Crimson Trace, which makes laser sights, calls itself “an NRA company” and donates 10 percent from each sale to the association. An NRA Golden Ring of Freedom honors people and institutions donating more than $1 million to the organization, including Cabelas, Beretta, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger—which puts out a special-edition pistol with serial numbers that begin with “NRA.”
“We’re trying to make history. We’d like to be the first company to ever build and ship a million guns in one year,” Sturm, Ruger president and CEO Mike Fifer said in a video on the NRA’s website earlier in the year. “We’d also like to help the NRA. It’s a big election year coming up, and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect our Second Amendment right to bear arms.” So, Fifer said, the company was pledging to give $1 from every gun sold to the NRA, adding: “If you’ve been thinking about that Ruger, please go out and buy it.”
It’s not surprising that companies support a lobbying group that encourages the purchase of their products. But the extent of corporate support for the NRA casts the group’s “grassroots” self-image—reflected in its “grassroots alerts” and “grassroots division”—in a doubtful light. The NRA’s annual meeting, where there’s always a “grassroots workshop,” is typically funded by a Who’s Who of gun industry stalwarts like Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, CZ-USA and Sturm, Ruger, who can pick up a “Gold Sponsorship” for $50,000 or attach their name to something cheaper, like sponsoring the annual Prayer Breakfast.
So while the NRA pulled in more than $100 million in membership dues in 2010, other donations (including those from corporate supporters) totaled nearly $59 million—and advertising in the association’s publications and on its websites brought in another $21 million.
The purity of the organization’s ideological goal—a commitment to individual freedom—is also a little tainted by the sheer amount of selling the NRA does. Members are bombarded with commercial solicitations for auto and home insurance, as well as insurance in case they’re killed in a hunting mishap, ArmsCare coverage for the loss or theft of a gun, and self-defense insurance to cover legal fees if they shoot somebody. The NRA also officially licenses some firearms accessories, like the protective SoundGear by LaPierre. Royalties earned the association $11 million in 2010.
The link between the marketing and legislative work is anything but subtle. In March, NRA members received an e-mail encouraging them to support a proposed federal law that would force states to recognize concealed-carry permits issued by other states. When the law passes, the NRA e-mail exclaimed, “you’ll enjoy increased freedom—and that means you’ll need some new NRA equipment!” Like, say, a new holster. Or a sweatshirt—a hoodie—specially made to conceal a gun.
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As the NRA notched victory after victory over the past decade, the gun-control movement reoriented—by all but dropping the idea of gun control. Its focus shifted from seeking gun registration or banning certain guns to trying to keep specific categories of people—felons, domestic abusers, the mentally incompetent—from getting weapons. This shift was spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which, in a series of undercover operations, exposed gun dealers knowingly selling to straw buyers as well as sketchy sales at gun shows.
Emboldened rather than embarrassed, the gun lobby mocked Bloomberg and trotted out a brand-new argument: stopping straw buyer sales and closing gun show loopholes would make little difference, it said, since most guns used to commit crimes are stolen—in fact, some 500,000 guns are lost or stolen every year. Yet the NRA and the gun industry have not supported rules requiring gun owners to report when their weapons go missing—let alone laws that might limit the sheer volume of guns out there to be lost or stolen. For example, a bill to limit gun sales to one per customer per month died in Massachusetts this summer.
That was just one in a series of recent wins for the gun lobby. In some cases, it fought off or rolled back gun restrictions, as in the eleven pro-gun measures in the House version of the federal budget, or the defeat in New York of a bid to require microstamping—placing small identification marks on every gun’s firing pin so that shell casings found at a crime scene can be matched to a particular gun. Other measures aimed to expand gun rights anew: Oklahoma became the twenty-fifth state to allow people to carry guns openly; Virginia overturned its one-gun-a-month rule; and, as USA Today reported in March, “Legislatures in a dozen states are considering laws that would eliminate requirements that residents obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.” Still others embodied the fear of weapons confiscation: North Carolina passed a law making it clear that guns couldn’t be seized during a state of emergency, and Louisiana legislators OK’d a constitutional amendment protecting the right to keep and bear arms.
Come November, should the gun-friendly Mitt Romney win and the House remain under Republican control, both the NRA and the gun industry will need a new premise for their profitable scare tactics. But as is true for the increasing number of concealed-carry permit holders packing heat each time they go out for a gallon of milk, if all you need to feel frightened is the mere possibility of danger, then danger will be everywhere. After all, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo might run for president in 2016, and he has a record as a gun control proponent. He could replace Barack Obama as Public Enemy No. 1 in NRA Country.