Revision Update: US Politics: Pressure Groups, Newtown and the NRA

Mike Simpson

16th May 2013

Another massacre in a school and a revival of calls for gun control might have suggested that this was the moment when the powerful gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association, might finally have to face some sort of defeat in its attempts to prevent any restrictions to the second amendment. It is probably too early to tell whether or not this is the case but this event does help shed more light on:1. The factors that can contribute to pressure group success2. The role of pressure groups in a democracy3. The nature of US government and politics

1.) The effectiveness of the NRA

The NRA is regarded as one of the most powerful pressure groups in the USA. This can be explained by:

i. Membership. In terms of both its quantity and quality, the membership of the NRA is a major factor in explaining its success. Not only is the membership large at around 4m. but the membership is committed. It is prepared to lobby their representatives in the Congress and perhaps more importantly to vote.

ii. Leadership. In Wayne La Pierre, the NRA has an experienced leader who is an effective advocate of the NRA cause.

iii. Methods. It was interesting to note thatthe NRA did not immediately respond to the Newtown massacre. If they had, they might have left themselves open to vehement criticism as was the case with Gun Owners of America, another group that supported a lifting of the ban on guns in schools so that students and teachers could protect themselves. The NRA are prepared to play the long game. When La Pierre did respond who cited the impact of video games such as Grand Theft Auto, Natural Born Killers and Kindergarten Killers as part of the problem and argued for armed guards in schools as they have in airports.

The group keeps a close focus on all elections and issues candidates’ ratings which help inform members how to vote. By the extensive use of e mail and phone calls, the NRA is one of the most active groups not only in Washington, but at local and state level too.

The NRA will also seek to exercise influence at congressional level too in two key ways.

a. The NRA will mount a spirited attack on any proposal to renew the ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons by a thorough line by line, clause by clause analysis of any proposed legislation. [1] They will argue the legislation is poorly drafted, ambiguous and ineffective. That is to say they will criticise any bill on technical merit as well as on the level of arguing that gun ownership in general is not the issue.

b. They have vast resources that can be used to help support candidates who oppose gun control. This is closely linked to the next factor discussed below. It is no wonder that the Economist stated “The NRA’s influence on introducing legislation has been remarkable. The debate over guns is no longer whether assault weapons should be banned, but over whether guns should be allowed in bars, churches and colleges.”[2]

The above quote does relate to the situation before the Newtown massacre. Prior to this, the ban on the sale of assault weapons, introduced in 1994, lapsed in in 2004 partly due to the work of the NRA and the sympathy to the gun cause from the Bush administration. This situation has now changed but still it is the case that the tide of legislation has been in favour of gun rights. Just before the massacre, Michigan passed a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons in schools. Congress recently voted to allow guns to be carried in national parks. Indeed the fact that President Obama did not oppose these measures bore testimony to the power wielded by the NRA to the extent that it looked like the president did not have the stomach for the fight which gun controls would involve. Indeed the Brady Campaign in favour of gun controls gave President Obama an “F” rating due to his lack of support for gun control.

iv. Money. It is difficult to escape from the role and importance of money when discussing virtually any aspect of US government and politics. From an examining perspective, it is worth mentioning the standard quotes of “money is the mother’s milk of US politics” (Unreh, “We have the best Congress money can buy” (Senator Edward Kennedy) and “you have to pay to play”.

Partly due to its membership but also because of support from the gun industry, the NRA has vast financial resources which allow it to greatly outspend its rivals. At the last election, the NRA spent $24.3m which was 400 times more than that of the Brady Campaign’s paltry $5,816. Similarly, the NRA spent $4.4m lobbying Congress which was 73 times the amount spent by the Brady Campaign. One gun manufacturer, Sturm, Ruger and Co donated $1 from each gun sold in 2011 to the NRA amounting to $1.2m in all.

v. The scale of the opposition. This idea relates to more than the money available to the other side and the resources at their disposal. A point which is sometimes difficult for the non-American to appreciate is that gun ownership is regarded as a basic civil right and that is an essential part of US culture. The same might be said about the scale and importance of religion. The fact is that the USA is different from most European countries.

The Newtown massacre has had an impact in increasing support for gun controls but this is likely to stop a long way short of a constitutional amendment. The Times argued that “a super majority in the Senate for gun control is all but inconceivable”[3].

Gabrielle Giffords, the Congresswoman who was shot in Arizona in 2011, when launching a new group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, designed to raise money for politicians who back gun control, stated that she had no intention of wanting to amend the second amendment.

These factors collectively would suggest then that once the public outcry has settled, gun reforms are likely to stop a long way short of reform of the second amendment. The ban on the sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines and the introduction of background checks for guns purchased at gun shows might be the best that will be achieved. Ironically, the massacre led to a dramatic increase in the sale of guns and assault weapons as people anticipated there might be the introduction of further controls. Certainly with over 250m guns in the USA, the issue is unlikely to subside in the near future.

Undoubtedly though the cause of the NRA has suffered a setback and there are several factors which might suggest it has lost some of its power and that it will have to accept some of the reforms mentioned above.

· There is now a groundswell of public opinion in favour of some sort of gun control.

· The NRA could lose credibility if it refuses to accept some sort of gun control.

· It faces a Democrat president and Democrat Senate, both of whom are less in debt to the organisation in terms of financial and voter support. Spending in the 2012 election did not seem to yield many victories. Whilst President Obama may not have had gun control on the top of his first term agenda, there are signs that he is prepared to take on the issue in his second.

· There are signs that the NRA is not the force it once was. The membership is mainly ageing males. It has struggled to recruit women and the young. Whilst the number of guns owned remains high, it seems that less people have a gun. The high figure is explained by gun owners owning more than one gun.


[2] The Economist, “Arms and the man”, 21.4.12.

[3] The Times leader column, “Death at Sandy Hook”, 17.12.12.

Mike Simpson

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