Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the NRA but were too embarrassed to ask

Have a question about the NRA? We've got answers.

CREDIT: Getty Images/Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: Getty Images/Diana Ofosu

The NRA often gets a lot of attention in the news — and there’s been a particular focus on the organization over the past several weeks, in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. But many Americans still have some basic questions about the gun advocacy group.

Here’s your field guide to help answer all the questions about the NRA you’ve been afraid to ask:

What is the NRA? Has it always been this extreme on guns?

The NRA stands for the National Rifle Association, which bills itself as a “fellowship organization of gun owners,” that instructs hunters and sport shooters in firearm safety. Its website claims it’s America’s “longest-standing civil rights organization.”

Started in 1871 by Civil War veterans who wished to improve the quality of marksmanship in the United States, the group largely stuck to sport shooting, hunting, and even conservation for nearly a century. It was a bipartisan group that taught Boy Scouts and others how to shoot safely. That changed in 1975, when the group formed the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) to lobby the government to slow or reverse gun control measures, and to increase access to firearms.

During the group’s 1977 annual meeting, a group of true-believer gun activists who wanted the organization to be more political on gun control legislation took over the NRA, using the group’s own laws stipulating how members can select leadership and change bylaws against it. The old guard wanted to move the NRA’s headquarters from D.C. to Colorado and focus on sport hunting, while the activists wanted to stay near the capital to influence the government on gun control legislation efforts. After that meeting, the NRA never really looked back.

By 1981, the NRA had found a close friend in the White House in the form of Ronald Reagan, and the group has been supporting Republican presidents ever since. It now functions as an extremist political group that, when not inciting violence, promotes the interests of gun manufacturers.

Who controls the NRA?

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president, is the most prominent figure in the organization. He is by far the most active member of the NRA’s leadership team, having been a lobbyist for the group for years before assuming his current position in 1991. LaPierre earned $5.1 million in 2015, the latest year for which this data is available.

Brownell’s President Pete Brownell joined the board in 2010, and became the president of the NRA in 2017. Brownell’s is a large gun accessory supplier, and Pete Brownell remains CEO of the company. Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA-ILA, functions as the group’s chief lobbyist.

The group is controlled by 76 elected members of the board of directors. One is Ted Nugent, who pushed a conspiracy theory about the Parkland shooting victims on social media. Others include anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, American Conservative Union former head David Keene, NBA hall of famer Karl Malone, disgraced Iran Contra figure Oliver North, and actor Tom Selleck.

Who is Dana Loesch?

Loesch is the NRA’s spokeswoman, who made a splash in 2017 when she appeared in an NRA recruiting video that stopped just short of calling for violence against progressives who oppose President Trump. She is a right-wing shock jock who has hosted a conservative radio show for years and was an original editor at Breitbart. She is often credited as a co-founder of the Tea Party movement.

How many members does the NRA have?

The NRA claims it has 5 million members, but there is no transparent way to confirm this. That number has not been updated very often. Members pay a $40 annual membership fee, and do not have to be active. About 80,000 people attend the group’s annual meeting.

Does the NRA advocate strengthening background checks?

Proposals to strengthen the background check system often gain momentum after mass shootings. But the NRA opposes this potential policy change. The NRA-ILA website clearly states, “NRA opposes expanding firearm background check systems.”

The NRA has a history of opposing legislation in this area.

The group opposed the Manchin-Toomey bill proposed after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2013, which would have strengthened the gun show loophole by requiring background checks for private purchases in commercial settings. That bill ultimately failed to pass Congress. The NRA also initially vehemently opposed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The NICS was added later in the process as a compromise measure.

Does the NRA advocate banning bump stocks?

After the Las Vegas shooting, where a device called a “bump stock” was used to allow semi-automatic weapons to mimic the firing rate of automatic weapons, many Americans called for a ban on bump stocks. More recently, after the Parkland shooting, President Trump himself said, “Bump stocks, we’re writing that out. I’m writing that out myself. I don’t care if Congress does it or not.”

The NRA issued a statement calling on the ATF to “immediately review” whether bump stocks “comply with federal law” following the Las Vegas shooting. It then said that a device that “allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.” This is not a call for an outright ban, but it does appear to open the door to some kind of restrictions on the devices. More recently, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said  the organization “doesn’t back any ban” on bump stocks.

Talking about bump stocks functions as part of a larger strategy: As long as the NRA is talking about bump stocks, the group is not talking about a ban on assault weapons.

How do Americans feel about the NRA?

The NRA is somewhat popular among the general public. A long-running Gallup poll question has found that the NRA enjoys a generally positive approval rating, with 58 percent of Americans saying they approve of the group. About a fifth of all gun owners say they are members.

But according to a poll commissioned by the gun control advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions, 67 percent say the group has been overtaken by lobbyists. A 2017 Pew survey found that 44 percent of Americans say the NRA has too much influence over gun laws, with 40 percent saying it has the right amount and 15 percent saying it has too little. 

There is some evidence that the NRA’s policy positions are out of step with the American public. Vast majorities of Americans support many gun control measures, according to a Quinnipiac poll released in February 2018. Universal background checks: 97 percent. A mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases: 83 percent. A nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons: 67 percent. Stricter gun control laws: 66 percent (up from 47 percent in December 2015).

Most NRA members actually disagree with the organization on policies like universal background checks.

Where does the NRA get its funding?

Funding for the organization comes from dues, contributions, and other fees supplied by its own members. Large groups and companies can also contribute to the NRA — much of this funding comes from the gun industry. Annual revenues hover between $300-400 million.

Is the NRA tax-exempt? How?

Yes. The NRA is a 501(c)(4) organization, meaning the tax code sees it as a social welfare organization. The tax-exempt status is widely available to anyone who has a partially educational purpose in conveying information to the public. The IRS isn’t in the business of fact-checking its claims. The NRA does conduct a great deal of political activity through its ILA arm, and is allowed to do this by law, as long as the main activity of the organization is not focused on political activism or lobbying.

Why do some companies work with the NRA, and why are they now ending these partnerships?

Many companies offer discounts to groups in order to get more customers. They perform a cost-benefit analysis on how much money they will lose due to the discount, and how much they are likely to gain from new customers paying more for their products and services.

NRA members, after paying their $40 fee to join the organization, are no exception. Car rental companies like Hertz and Budget provided 25 percent discounts to NRA members, for example, while insurers like MetLife and Life Insurance Central offered them more generous plans and group rates.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, these corporate relationships quickly came under increased scrutiny. ThinkProgress published a list of more than 20 companies partnering with the NRA, sparking widespread grassroots pressure. Within one week, two dozen companies announced they had dropped their NRA partnerships.

If the existence these type of corporate discounts turns off a great deal of other customers, they become far less advantageous for the company — which helps explain why the relationships between the NRA and these companies ended so quickly. Once people found out about the partnerships, they became a bad thing for the companies’ bottom lines. The power in this dynamic rests with customers speaking out and telling the companies directly that if they work with the NRA, they will lose more business.

What’s the deal with the NRA’s grading system for members of Congress?

The NRA rates federal politicians based on how the group sees their records on the Second Amendment. An “A” rating from the NRA ensures that a candidate will not be attacked by the group, and most candidates receiving this score will tout the rating. Candidates who do not have a record to judge can be scored based on their answers to an NRA questionnaire and would receive a top grade of “AQ” if they are completely in line with the group’s positions.

Anything below an “A” grade will invite various forms of pressure for the politician to either change his or her positions or risk being defeated. This pressure comes in the form of voter guides mailed to NRA members, email reminders about upcoming elections, and ads opposing candidates the NRA wishes to unseat.

How much does the NRA spend on politicians? Who has received the most donations?

The NRA has a political action committee through which its members directly contribute millions to political candidates, and the vast majority of its spending goes to Republicans. For example, in the 2016 election cycle, the NRA contributed $1.1 million to Republican candidates and just $10,500 to Democrats.

This pattern holds for many of the preceding election cycles, too:

Credit: Screenshot from the Center for Responsive Politics
Credit: Screenshot from the Center for Responsive Politics

The NRA also spends millions to lobby Congress. It spent $3.3 million in 2014, $3.6 million in 2015, $3.2 million in 2016, and $5.1 million in 2017.

But more significant than its direct financial contributions — which, compared to the million-dollar budgets of even low-profile congressional elections, amount to a small fraction per member of Congress — is the voter mobilization efforts the organization deploys every year.

In the 2016 election cycle, for example, the NRA spent $54.4 million on outside spending — which consisted almost entirely political communication advocating the defeat of Democratic candidates and the support of Republican candidates (for instance, it spent $37,010,516 against Democrats, and $265 for Democrats). The biggest recipient? Donald Trump, who benefited from over $11 million in pro-Trump campaign ads and $19.8 million in anti-Hillary Clinton ads.

In October 2017, the NRA spent over $1 million on ads in support of its preferred candidate, Ed Gillespie, in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. One national ad stopped just short of calling for violence against progressives who oppose President Trump.

What is the NRA’s TV channel?

After federal campaign reform legislation curtailed the abilities of groups like the NRA to influence political races in the days leading up to an election, the group decided to find a better way to connect with its membership. According to Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s advertising agency, the solution was to set up NRA News, its own news channel. “If political free speech is restricted to news media, why not go deeper into the news business yourself?” Ackerman McQueen asks on its website.

The channel, rebranded as NRATV in 2016, streams NRA propaganda online 24 hours per day. Functionally, the channel operates as a Fox News Channel specifically for gun lovers.

Dana Loesch has a show, as do many of the NRA’s top messengers. They talk about political priorities of the group as well as prosaic issues that interest gun enthusiasts — and all the while, the channel makes clear that it is sponsored by gun industry vendors.

The NRA media empire is not limited to TV ads, its own TV channel, radio broadcasts, and social media. It also has an “official journal” called “American Hunter,” which tweeted about a high-powered assault rifle hours after the deadly shooting in Las Vegas.

What is the NRA convention?

Every year, the NRA holds a convention, called an “annual meeting,” where members can hear from the organization’s leadership about legislative priorities and perceived threats to the Second Amendment. The event also functions as a traditional convention, where arms sellers and other businesses host displays for convention-goers to try out their products and hear their messages.

President Trump has spoken at the NRA convention for the past several years. He spoke there before he announced his candidacy in 2015, when he got endorsed by the group in 2016, and to detail his administration’s commitment to the group in 2017.

What is “NRA Carry Guard,” and what does it do?

The NRA advertises “NRA Carry Guard” as both a training course for using a concealed weapon and the personal liability insurance to protect those who purchase it should they fire their weapon at someone else. For several hundred dollars per year, anyone can get differing levels of liability insurance, and for a one-time purchase of close to a thousand dollars, the NRA will “train responsible Americans like you” to carry a concealed weapon. The focus, according to the Carry Guard website, is “surviving a self-defense shooting” — it even has a guide teaching “what do to after you pull the trigger.”

But the Carry Guard program’s insurance option requires actual insurance company underwriters to provide a benefit to its customers, and public outcry against businesses that work with the NRA has made that difficult. Insurance companies Chubb and Lockton, both identified as underwriters of the Carry Guard program, have since announced they would stop underwriting the program.

What is the NRA’s connection to Russia?

Despite the NRA’s professed opposition to tyranny, the group has cozied up to a Russian gun-rights group with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime. The goals behind this connection are unclear — but, oddly enough for a gun rights organization, the NRA criticized American sanctions on Russia in 2014.

The group, called “The Right to Bear Arms,” is run by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights activist who strongly supports Putin. Several NRA higher-ups flew to Moscow to meet with the group in 2015, and Butina and Torshin both prominently attended several NRA conventions over the last few years. Two days after Trump’s election, Torshin said on Twitter than he only knew of two Russian lifetime NRA members: himself and Butina.

Paul Erickson, an NRA fundraiser, also visited Russia in 2014 for an “open meeting” with The Right to Bear Arms. In February 2016, Erickson and Butina opened a company together, Bridges LLC, which apparently does no business. As Trump closed in on the GOP nomination, Erickson emailed top Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, saying, “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” and that the next NRA convention in Kentucky would be a good place to make “first contact.” At this convention, Donald Trump Jr. met with Torshin.

In 2018, McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether any Russian money went to the NRA to help Trump win the 2016 election. The NRA later denied that it used any Russian money to influence the election. It did not deny that it had received money from Russian interests at all, however. Using foreign money to influence an election is illegal.