Just over a year ago, the National Rifle Association, riven by infighting and filing for bankruptcy, seemed to be a diminished force in America.
But this weekend, tens of thousands of supporters — including former president Donald Trump — flocked to its annual convention in Houston, Texas, in a testament to the gun rights group’s enduring political influence.
After last week’s massacre at an elementary school in Texas, experts say the NRA’s institutional problems have cost it none of its political clout.
“The NRA is still in a mess financially and legally,” said Robert Spitzer, a political-science professor at the State University of New York Cortland and author of multiple books on gun control. “But it continues to issues statements, continues to contribute money to politicians — it continues to wield its power.”
The NRA has existed since 1871. But it only became a political force in 1977, when Harlon Carter — who shot and killed a 15-year-old boy when he was 17 — became its head of operations. Under Carter’s watch, the organisation tripled its membership to 3mn and focused its resources on fighting attempts to regulate gun ownership.
The NRA was once relatively bipartisan in its donations and lobbying efforts. However, in recent years, it has become inextricably linked with the Republican party.
According to public data analysed by OpenSecrets, which monitors political spending, 98 of the top 100 Congressional beneficiaries of NRA money since 1989 are Republican.
Democrats have so far failed to convince a single senior Republican to back their calls for tighter gun laws following the Texas shootings.
Mitt Romney, the Republican senator for Utah, is the chief recipient of NRA money, having benefited from over $13.5mn in its donations during his career. Romney said last week he would not support a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers unless he could make changes to it.
Thom Tillis, the Republican senator from North Carolina, who has been helped by $5.6mn of NRA spending, said last week: “We need to avoid . . . the reflexive reaction we have to say this could all be solved by not having guns in anyone’s hands.”
Roy Blunt, the Republican senator from Missouri who has received $4.6mn of NRA spending over his career, last week warned Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, that rushing ahead with gun legislation would trigger a string of “no” votes.
The association has spent lavishly on Republican presidential candidates, including spending over $31mn in support of Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016.
Trump told the NRA convention on Friday: “The various gun control policies being pushed by the left would have done nothing to prevent the horror that took place [in Texas].”
Recently, however, the organisation has begun to struggle financially and has had to rein in its political spending.
According to the NRA’s tax filings, its revenues have fallen nearly a quarter since 2016 to $282mn, while its membership has dropped from nearly 6mn to just under 4.9mn. It spent only $17mn supporting Trump’s re-election in 2020.
Meanwhile, its chief executive Wayne LaPierre has been accused by one of the NRA’s former business partners of using members’ money like his “personal piggy bank”.
In 2020, Letitia James, the New York attorney-general, alleged widespread corruption at the organisation and sought to have it wound up. She claimed the NRA had paid $13.5mn to LaPierre’s personal travel consultant, that it had chartered private jets for him, his wife and his niece, and that during a trip to the Bahamas he had used a yacht owned by an NRA contractor. LaPierre called the charges a “gross weaponisation of legal and regulatory power”.
The NRA, which did not respond to a request to comment, has claimed James’ charges are politically motivated, and last year filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy so it could reconstitute in Texas instead of New York. A judge refused it permission to do so.
Protesters that gathered outside the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston slammed the group for pressing ahead with the conference, which promised “14 acres of guns and gear”, so soon after the Uvalde massacre.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” said Kim Milburn, a resident from the Houston area who was protesting the meeting. “They could have moved it to a week away, two weeks away. People haven’t even buried their kids yet.”
Nevertheless, members appeared undeterred in their enthusiasm for the organisation.
Kyle Campbell, a member from Texas, said: “I bet if you dug into the NRA’s financial issues, there’s somebody that did some shit that wasn’t right.” But he added: “The NRA is important because it’s at the front of all the battles against the Second Amendment.”
The organisation also continues to notch up policy victories, even while polling shows the majority of Americans are in favour of stricter gun laws.
In 2004, then president George W Bush allowed a ban on assault weapons to expire — since then gun murders have doubled and “active shooter incidents” have quadrupled, according to figures from the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2013, NRA opposition was crucial in defeating proposals by the Democratic senator Joe Manchin and his Republican colleague Pat Toomey to expand background checks.
And it could be about to secure its most significant victory in years. Later this year, the conservative-majority Supreme Court is expected to rule in a case brought by the New York State Rifle and Pistol Club against the state’s restrictions on carrying concealed handguns in public places.
Many experts say, however, that the NRA’s greatest success has been to move the debate on gun control away from a policy question to something more cultural.
Kerri Raissian, a professor in public policy at the University of Connecticut, said: “The NRA has crafted a narrative for decades that guns are a part of American social identity.”
Jennifer Carlson, a professor at the University of Arizona, added: “The movement that the NRA has created — the gun culture that the NRA has sown — is going to persist with or without the NRA.”