As the National Rifle Association flounders, some upstart pro-gun groups see an opportunity to become the nation’s most influential gun rights organization.
The groups say they’re attracting new members and raking in donations. They’re hiring additional staff to work on grassroots advocacy and lobbying. One is going so far as to discuss at a conference in September how to fill the void left by the NRA, which has struggled to address internal squabbles and accusations of financial mismanagement.
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“There are a lot of NRA members that don’t like the infighting, don’t like all the lawsuits, don’t like some of the spending that’s been talked about in the press,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation. “A lot of them — they want to defend gun rights, they’re not going to stop defending gun rights, they’re just looking at other places to do it.”
Several of the organizations vying to unseat the NRA as the nation’s top gun advocate are considered more aggressive advocates of the Second Amendment and include the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights, as well as the more moderate Second Amendment Foundation. Their moves come as Congress and President Donald Trump are discussing new gun restrictions after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, as well as an upcoming presidential election for which turning out gun owners will be a top priority for Trump’s campaign.
“As an organization, we don’t use Gucci-loafered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. in $200,000 wardrobes to grease the palms of weak-kneed politicians to vote right,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, referencing the NRA chief executive’s purported lavish spending. “Instead, we activate our members to do that lobbying for us and for them. That’s the power in a grassroots lobby and NRA lost that a long time ago.”
The Second Amendment Foundation and its advocacy wing, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms have each seen donations increase 20 to 25 percent from April to July, compared with the same period in 2018, in part because of the controversies surrounding the NRA, said Gottlieb. He would not provide detailed accounting of the donations.
Similarly, Gun Owners of America, said it raised so much money in recent years that it could last five years without additional funds — but also wouldn’t provide detailed figures. The National Association for Gun Rights, meanwhile, said it spent more on pro-gun lobbying than the NRA in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012. It boasts it has 4.5 million grassroots activists, a little less than the around 5 million members the NRA claims.
But overtaking the NRA won’t be easy. The group still outspends other gun rights organizations most years in lobbying. And one of its key assets is its ability to galvanize members to vote.
“There’s no doubt that an NRA that is somewhat distracted with internal issues is a less effective advocate,” said Chris Wilson, a veteran GOP pollster. “Various other groups are trying to step up, but it takes years to build the kinds of lists and member relationships that the NRA has. So no one else is going to be able to mobilize the kind of effort that the NRA normally would.”
Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokesperson, said in a statement that “anyone who chooses to discount gun owners does so at their own peril. NRA members and Second Amendment supporters will be engaged with their elected officials in Washington.”
Competing gun rights groups, however, say the NRA’s decline in influence began recently. Among their grievances is the NRA’s signaling an openness to red flag laws, which allow authorities to take away guns from people who are a threat to themselves and others. (The NRA however has not endorsed any red flag laws at the state level, and it failed to defeat such laws in 17 states and D.C.)
The decline “all began when the NRA came in with a weak response to Parkland,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel of Gun Owners of America, referencing the mass shooting at a Florida high school last year that left 17 people dead. “I think that the recent financial troubles people would forgive. But I don’t think they forgive what they view as a weakness on Second Amendment issues.”
Hammond added the group plans to meet with the White House this week to push back against expanding background checks.
On the other side, gun control groups also see an opportunity to take on the NRA. During the midterms, gun control groups outspent the NRA for the first time. Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, said the NRA’s void could help them dominate the conversation.
“Organizations like Giffords are going to benefit from the vacuum created by the NRA’s crack up as well and in other ways we’re going to be the primary beneficiaries,” Ambler said. “First of all, we’re going to occupy the political space in terms of influencing the political conversation around guns and second of all we’re going to organize a lot of gun owners.”
Despite the recent turmoil, the NRA’s lobbying continues to be a powerful influence. The NRA and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent about $5 million on lobbying in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Gun Owners of America, by contrast, spent $1.55 million in 2018, the National Association for Gun Rights spent $1.1 million and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms spent $284,863, according to lobbying records.
The NRA has also spent big on Senate races, with the hope of turning out voters who will support gun rights. NRA members, at least in the past, have shown that they are more politically active than non-NRA-member gun owners.
A Pew Research survey from 2017 found that Republican gun owners who are part of the NRA do think gun laws should be less strict compared with Republican gun owners who are nonmembers. NRA members are also much more politically active than gun owners who do not belong to the NRA. The survey found that 46 percent of gun owners in the NRA had reached out to a public official to talk about gun policy, compared with 15 percent of non-NRA-member gun owners.
But even if the NRA yields less influence in the 2020 election, GOP strategists and other gun rights groups say that contingent of voters will stay motivated.
“The NRA is obviously working through some issues, but I don’t think that means their members are any less committed to Second Amendment causes,” said Alex Conant, a former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), now a Republican strategist. “You can get rid of the organization but as long as there’s hundreds of millions of Americans who own firearms and support the Second Amendment, you’re going to have real political opposition to gun control legislation.”