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Explained: Who are the NRA, America’s most prominent gun lobby group?

The biggest and most powerful gun lobby group in the US is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has for years mounted determined and fierce opposition to all efforts to reduce or restrict access to lethal firearms.

Demonstrators hold a banner to protest the visit of President Donald Trump to the border city after the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 7, 2019. (AP)

As 19 children and two teachers were murdered in the deadliest school shooting in the United States since the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012, President Joe Biden said in seeming despair: “As a nation, we have to ask when in God’s name we’re going to stand up to the gun lobby, when in God’s name we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done.”

The biggest and most powerful gun lobby group in the US is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has for years mounted determined and fierce opposition to all efforts to reduce or restrict access to lethal firearms. A little over a decade ago, the NRA had sued Texas — the same state in which the 18-year-old gunman went on a rampage on Tuesday (May 24) — in a bid to force it to lower the legal age for owning a handgun from 21 years to 18.

Since 1991, the NRA has been led by Wayne LaPierre, 72, the CEO and executive vice president of the group.

The group

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The NRA was founded in 1871 by William Conant Church and Captain George Wood Wingate, two veterans of the Civil War, with the intention to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”. Gen Ambrose Burnside of the Union Army was elected the NRA’s first president.

In the initial decades of its existence, the NRA promoted rifle clubs across the US, and encouraged marksmanship as a sport. It was only in the 1930s that it entered the arena of political lobbying. The NRA supported the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, the first federal gun control law in the US, and then the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, which put in place a system of licensing gun dealers and restricted certain categories of weapons, but opposed the proposal for building a national firearms registry.

NRA’s politics

The NRA remained broadly nonpartisan until the 1970s. Its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, was founded in 1975, and in 1977, the NRA built its own Political Action Committee (PAC) to fund lawmakers. Today, it is one of the most influential of special interest groups, with a very large budget to influence Congressmen and Congresswomen on gun policy in the US.

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The NRA has close ties with the Republican party, and Republican politicians have long solicited the support of the group and its members. The NRA directly gave well over $600,000 to politicians during the 2020 elections, almost all of it to Republicans, according to the nonprofit monitoring group OpenSecrets.

The 2015 Leadership Forum of the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s political advocacy arm, was addressed by a galaxy of candidates for the GOP presidential ticket, including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson.

Trump, Cruz, and Texas Governor Gregg Abbott are among the Republicans who are scheduled to address the Institute of Legislative Action’s 2022 Forum in Houston, Texas, over the weekend.

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Size and strength

The NRA spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which for a long time was much more than all the advocacies for gun control put together. That situation is estimated to have changed in the last few years.

Estimates of the NRA’s membership vary, and the group is often accused of overstating its numbers. The number of the NRA’s members is perhaps around 3 million now. Former President George H W Bush, former Republican candidate for vice president Sarah Palin, and actors Tom Selleck, Whoopi Goldberg, and Charlton Heston have been members of the NRA at different times.

The NRA actively gives money for building and maintaining gun ranges. Its lobbying budget, including official and unofficial spends, runs into tens of millions of dollars every year. The group’s membership is highly engaged politically, and considered to be a solid vote bank focussed on a single issue that Republican politicians seek to tap.

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First published on: 25-05-2022 at 20:19 IST
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