Just a generation ago, the NRA was a nonpartisan and relatively non-ideological organization that advocated for responsible and safe gun ownership in addition to defending gun rights.
But in its 20 years under the leadership of chief executive Wayne LaPierre the organization has become another cog in the broader conservative advocacy machine.
At the same time, with gun ownership declining, the organization has come to rely less on its members’ dues and more on firearm manufacturers, which now account for over half of the NRA’s revenues according to Walter Hickey at Business Insider.
The gun lobby also lost a key element of what had long been its defining mission: Guns remain a hot-button topic for political debate, but in the courts the issue has largely been settled. Gun rights won.
In 2010, the Supreme Court settled a long-standing debate about whether the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms or only applied to, as the Constitution reads, “a well-regulated militia.” The court ruled that the right to own firearms, while not without limits, is as integral as the right to free speech or the free exercise of religion. Since then, a number of municipal bans on firearm ownership have been overturned — most recently when a federal court struck down a California law that allowed counties to restrict the concealed carry of guns.
But the gun makers’ lobby remains strong and well-financed, and it has an institutional imperative to keep lobbying. It is now in the business of selling guns by promoting the idea that we can never have too many, nor should there be any public places where firearms aren’t welcome — and by spinning conspiracy theories about various imagined plots to disarm law-abiding Americans.
Today, the NRA and its political allies promote such policies as allowing concealed weapons in bars, allowing the blind to carry firearms (“Blind gun user Michael Barber said: ‘When you shoot a gun, you take it out and point and shoot, and I don’t necessarily think eyesight is necessary’”), making it a felony for doctors to discuss gun safety with their patients (never mind the First Amendment) and barring private firms from telling their employees to keep their guns at home.
Pro-gun lawmakers have gotten the message. Last month, five Republican legislators in Washington State introduced a bill that would exempt all firearms and ammunition from the state’s sales tax. Now in theory at least, one reason for tax breaks is to encourage some social good. For example, 20 years of tax credits have played a role in the exponential increase of wind energy production in the US. Yet here was a proposed tax break that would only encourage the sale of more guns in a country that’s already bristling with them.
These laws are predicated on the belief that more guns make a society safer. One of the cosponsors of the Washington State bill, Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) told a local conservative talk radio host, “It’s beyond a shadow of a doubt: More firearms in a society cuts crime in that society.” (In fact, according to the UN, the US is believed to lead the world in private gun ownership and has the highest total crime rate among wealthy countries.)
Kentucky lawmakers proposed a similar measure back in December, and in Kansas, the belief that more guns mean more safety forms the basis of a law that only permits local officials to bar firearms from public buildings if they install costly metal detectors or hire security guards. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley is backing a law that would allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit or any safety training.
The problem is that this faith in guns for security, like global warming denialism, flies in the face of a mountain of serious, peer-reviewed research.
Last month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) finding that access to a firearm makes an individual almost twice as likely to become the victim of a homicide and three times more likely to commit suicide.
Previous studies had found that countries with higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun deaths and that states with more guns have higher homicide rates. But gun advocates dismissed those studies because they didn’t account for illegal gun sales. (The National Rifle Association’s side of the scholarly debate rests largely on the discredited and allegedly fraudulent work of economist John Lott.)
The UCSF study took a different approach, starting with a dead body and working backwards to see whether that person owned or had access to a firearm, legal or illegal. The study was a meta-analysis combining data from 15 previous, peer-reviewed papers.
It also found a significant gender gap in terms of homicide: Men with access to a gun were 29 percent more likely to be a victim of homicide, while women with a gun close at hand were almost three times more likely to be murdered. The report cited previous studies that found that most female murder victims knew their assailant, and three-quarters of women killed with a gun died in their own homes. Researchers concluded that the presence of guns may make impulsive killings during domestic disputes more common.
Another soon-to-be-published study may provide the most compelling evidence to date that looser gun laws lead to more bloodshed. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health were able to conduct a natural experiment in Missouri after the state repealed a law requiring handgun purchasers to get a license and pass a background check in 2007. According to the study’s authors, repealing the law “contributed to a sixteen percent increase in Missouri’s murder rate.”
That translated into 55 to 63 more murders per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012, despite the fact that during the same period, “none of the states bordering Missouri experienced significant increases in murder rates and the U.S. murder rate actually declined by over five percent.” The increase in murders began in the first full year after the state’s licensing requirement was repealed, and the researchers “controlled for changes in policing, incarceration, burglaries, unemployment, poverty, and other state laws adopted during the study period that could affect violent crime.”
The conclusions presented in these studies, along with previous research, fly in the face of the persistent claim that more guns make a society safer. But this is as much a story of money influencing politics as anything else. With supporters like Springfield Armory, Inc, Pierce Bullet, Seal Target Systems, Beretta USA Corporation, Sturm Rugar & Co and Smith & Wesson, public safety simply isn’t a high priority for the gun lobby.