The New Yorker: Why is the NRA so powerful?

In The New Yorker‘s financial section, the iconic magazine discusses how the National Rifle Association’s power comes from a refined message along with loyal followers.

In the wake of the massacre at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, Hillary Clinton promised that if she is elected President she will use executive power to make it harder for people to buy guns without background checks. Meanwhile, Ben Carson, one of the Republican Presidential candidates, said, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” The two responses could hardly have been more different, but both were testaments to the power of a single organization: the National Rifle Association. Clinton invoked executive action because the N.R.A. has made it unthinkable that a Republican-controlled Congress could pass meaningful gun-control legislation. Carson found it expedient to make his comment because the N.R.A. has shaped the public discourse around guns, in one of the most successful P.R. (or propaganda, depending on your perspective) campaigns of all time.

In many accounts, the power of the N.R.A. comes down to money. The organization has an annual operating budget of some quarter of a billion dollars, and between 2000 and 2010 it spent fifteen times as much on campaign contributions as gun-control advocates did. But money is less crucial than you’d think. The N.R.A.’s annual lobbying budget is around three million dollars, which is about a fifteenth of what, say, the National Association of Realtors spends. The N.R.A.’s biggest asset isn’t cash but the devotion of its members. Adam Winkler, a law professor at U.C.L.A. and the author of the 2011 book “Gunfight,” told me, “N.R.A. members are politically engaged and politically active. They call and write elected officials, they show up to vote, and they vote based on the gun issue.” In one revealing study, people who were in favor of permits for gun owners described themselves as more invested in the issue than gun-rights supporters did. Yet people in the latter group were four times as likely to have donated money and written a politician about the issue.

The N.R.A.’s ability to mobilize is a classic example of what the advertising guru David Ogilvy called the power of one “big idea.” Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. relentlessly promoted the view that the right to own a gun is sacrosanct. Playing on fear of rising crime rates and distrust of government, it transformed the terms of the debate. As Ladd Everitt, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told me, “Gun-control people were rattling off public-health statistics to make their case, while the N.R.A. was connecting gun rights to core American values like individualism and personal liberty.” The success of this strategy explains things that otherwise look anomalous, such as the refusal to be conciliatory even after killings that you’d think would be P.R. disasters. After the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, the N.R.A.’s C.E.O. sent a series of e-mails to his members warning them that anti-gun forces were going to use it to “ban your guns” and “destroy the Second Amendment.”

[ The New Yorker ]