The Passionate Eye

How the NRA, a powerful influence on American politics, found itself under attack

“If I’m elected, NRA, I’m coming for you,” said Democratic nominee Joe Biden

“If I’m elected, NRA, I’m coming for you,” said Democratic nominee Joe Biden

Young protesters hold signs at a March for Our Lives rally (PBS)

As the 2020 American presidential election approaches, the National Rifle Association (NRA), a formidable political power, is under attack. The story of its history and influence over U.S. politics is told in NRA Under Fire, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye.

The NRA wasn't always against gun restrictions

The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Civil War veterans to educate a new generation of marksmen, both for war and sport. 

"The NRA was a safety organization," said Matt Bennett, a gun control advocate featured in the documentary. "They helped people teach their children and their friends and family how to use and store and keep firearms safely."

The NRA changed after the Kennedy assassinations

The U.S. government took action on firearms after the high-profile assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in the 1960s. The response from Washington was new legislation. Said President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, "Effective crime control remains, in my judgment, effective gun control."

Those words would be a call to arms for some in the NRA. According to the documentary, the final transformation happened at an all-night session in 1977 when the hunters faced off with the gun rights activists. "They believed that it was incumbent upon the NRA to become a Second Amendment organization," said Bennett. "They cleared the board of people that disagreed with them. And the NRA has essentially been that ever since." 

Over time, the NRA grew into a powerful lobby that would wield influence over American politics. Its leadership saw guns as a symbol of freedom.

According to former NRA spokesperson John Aquilino, "The gun is a symbol of freedom, the only thing that keeps bad government from taking over. It really has nothing to do with guns; it has to do with freedom."

How the NRA influences Washington

Highly organized and well-funded by its five million members, the NRA is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies.

"You don't need thousands of people, and you don't need millions of dollars," said Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America's Gun. "You need hundreds of people who will get on the phone and, really, a couple hundred people to show up at a town hall meeting. You do that a couple of times, and your member of Congress gets the message."

The organization is also known to grade American politicians on their stance on gun rights. These grades have a powerful influence on how the candidate is perceived at election time by the large NRA voting block. 

"So if you've got an 'F' rating from the NRA and you are trying to get elected — good luck with that," said Sheryl Gay Stolberg, a journalist with the New York Times.

The NRA has the influence to sway who is elected to office 

After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the NRA worked to block legislation proposed by President Bill Clinton which would require background checks for all firearm purchases at gun shows. Vice-President Al Gore cast a tie-breaking vote to pass the law in the Senate, but the proposal died in the House, falling short of the 218 majority needed, due to NRA lobbying.

When Gore ran for president in 2000, the NRA spent $20 million US on the most aggressive political campaign it had undertaken to date. "Al Gore wants government testing, licensing and registration for all firearms owners," said actor and NRA president Charlton Heston in an advertisement. "He cast the vote that would have shut down every gun show. This year, vote freedom first because if Al Gore wins, you lose."

When Barack Obama came into office, he asked Joe Biden to put together a plan for gun control. When a shooting tragedy occurred, the NRA had to double down and activate their playbook. 1:56

Gore lost the election, and the "Democrats were running scared of the NRA," recalled Stolberg.

The NRA has been successful in blocking laws that were supported by the majority of Americans

In 2012, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — which left 20 children and six staff members dead — would start another political fight over gun legislation. 

The victims' families pushed for change, and President Barack Obama's administration was ready to take up the fight. Former vice-president and now presidential candidate Joe Biden said in NRA Under Fire, "I was optimistic. Over 91 per cent of the American people supported expanding background checks; 80 per cent of the households that had an NRA member supported it." 

Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator with an "A" rating from the NRA tried to convince the organization to support the proposed law.

But, in the end, the NRA wouldn't back down. "The Manchin bill was not aiming at loopholes," said Larry Pratt, former executive director of the gun rights organization Gun Owners of America. "It was aiming at nailing down some remaining freedom that American people have. Gun control simply kills people." 

The bill fell six votes short despite overwhelming public support. "This was a pretty shameful day for Washington," remarked Obama.

The Parkland shooting was a turning point in the gun rights issue

In 2018, another school shooting left 17 people dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Three days later, 18-year-old Emma González, pointed the finger at politicians in the pocket of the NRA, "The people in the government … telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS," she shouted at a rally. "To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you."

Parkland students, determined their classmates would not be just another statistic, marched on Washington, D.C., along with hundreds of thousands of other demonstrators there and in cities around the world.

President Donald Trump met with the students and spoke publicly about reviving Obama's bill. But after meeting with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA, whose organization had spent more than $30 million US supporting his campaign, he caved.

In a surprise move, it sounded like Trump was making waves in the gun control debate, and revive Obama's Newtown bill. But after a visit from the NRA's head, the gun legislation was stalled and went nowhere. 1:57

The Parkland students organized a summer bus tour with 50 stops in 20 states to push for gun reform. They wanted to put gun control on the agenda of the 2018 midterms.

"The NRA has never had to deal with this kind of generational problem before," Bennett said in the documentary. "They'd never gone up against a bunch of incredibly smart, talented and organized young people."

On election night, Democrats picked up more than three dozen House seats to take control for the first time in eight years.

The NRA is under attack by New York attorney-general Letitia James

James set her sights on the NRA. She subpoenaed their financial records to look at how they were raising and spending money. 

In August, she sued the NRA, alleging high-ranking executives diverted millions of dollars for lavish personal trips and other questionable expenditures. "The NRA's influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funnelled millions into their own pockets," James said in a statement. The lawsuit seeks to dissolve the organization.

Although the legal battle could last for years, the NRA is now under attack.

"I want to tell you, if I'm elected, NRA, I'm coming for you," Biden said at a South Carolina rally. "And gun manufacturers, I'm gonna take you on, and I'm going to beat you."

Watch NRA Under Fire on The Passionate Eye.

 

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