WASHINGTON (AP) — The roster of Republican presidential hopefuls who flocked to the National Rifle Association's annual convention reflects the political potency of gun rights, despite the group's eroding revenues and an opposition movement that's growing increasingly vocal as the drumbeat of mass shootings marches on.
Even amid internal turmoil and legal woes, the gun ownership culture and movement that the NRA helped build remains formidable. And the landmark Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment last summer has given new strength to gun-rights activists seeking to invalidate firearm restrictions across the country.
“On the one hand, the gun-rights movement has never been stronger,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who wrote “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America." But “one of the interesting things about this moment is the NRA, in some ways, has never faced more organizational incoherence and disarray.”
This year's convention came just days after mass shootings at a school in Nashville, Tennessee and at a bank last week in Louisville, Kentucky, the latter of which marked the 15th mass killing of the year in the U.S. in which four or more people were killed other than the perpetrator, according to a mass killings database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in partnership with Northeastern University. That was the most during the first 100 days of a calendar year since 2009, when 16 incidents had occurred by April 10.
“No one wants to see the violence you see in schools and stuff today,” Randy Conner, a pistol and rifle instructor for the NRA from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, told The Associated Press during the event. “But I don’t think taking the guns away from ordinary citizens is going to change any of that at all.”
The Indianapolis gathering drew a slew of Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, potential rivals for the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination. They vowed to defend the Second Amendment and dismissed the idea that gun restrictions are the answer to violence on the streets.
It also came as the NRA grapples with the fallout of infighting and lawsuits.
A judge last year ruled that the New York attorney general’s lawsuit accusing some top NRA executives of financial improprieties can move forward, even though the judge rebuffed Attorney General Letitia James' bid to put the group out of business. The NRA filed for bankruptcy in 2021, but a judge dismissed that case, ruling it was not filed in good faith.
Five years ago, the NRA had a $36 million deficit because of lavish spending, followed by lawsuits from its own members as well as the attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C.
In the years since, the group appears to have pulled itself out of a financial hole, but not because of an influx of cash, said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State University who has studied the group’s finances. Revenue fell by 4% in 2020, and by 18% the following year, he found. The group cut back on spending on longstanding programs, including education and training, recreational shooting and law enforcement initiatives, Mittendorf said.
Their primary source of revenue has always been membership dues, but that base has also declined in recent years, and cuts to programs could make it harder to draw in new members, Mittendorf said.
“Despite the fact that they’ve reduced their footprint, they’re still not getting enough revenues to cover their costs. So it suggests something has to give for this organization,” he said.
Still, a bigger piece of the NRA's influence has been its ability to mobilize people to oppose gun control by creating a social identity around gun ownership, said Matt Lacombe, a Case Western Reserve University political science professor and author of “Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force.” And people are motivated to oppose efforts that feel like a threat to part of their identity, he said.
“The NRA was responsible for creating that identity, but it is now a thing that exists in the world somewhat independently of the National Rifle Association as an organization,” he said. “So if the NRA were to fold tomorrow or to go out of business, it’s not as though this constituency of people who own guns and who largely view politics through this lens of being a gun owner is going to go anywhere, at least overnight.”
An NRA spokesperson said the organization is “financially strong and as effective as ever in its mission to protect the Second Amendment, despite the effects of a pandemic, weak economy and other factors that have affected so many corporations and organizations.”
“The ‘demise of the NRA’ is a desperate and false narrative - one we’ve heard every year for decades," spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said in an emailed statement. "And yet, the strength of this organization was on full display this past week, as nearly 80,000 people gathered in Indianapolis to celebrate the Association and listen to almost every pro-Second Amendment presidential candidate.”
Gun sales in the U.S. rose to unprecedented levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Florida just became the latest state to do away with requirements that people get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's Bruen decision in June — in a case brought by an NRA-affiliate — has prompted gun rights activists to file a flurry of challenges to firearm restrictions across the country. Judges already have pointed to the ruling, which changed the test that lower courts long used to evaluate gun laws, to declare unconstitutional measures designed to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers and defendants under felony indictment, among other laws.
Yet, the last decade also has seen a growing counterweight in the gun-control movement.
“Kissing the NRA’s ring may help GOP presidential hopefuls win a primary, but it will be the kiss of death in a general election where a clear majority of voters favor common-sense gun safety laws," John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in an emailed statement.
Congress passed its first major gun legislation in decades over the summer, stepping up FBI background checks for buyers under 21 and sending millions of new dollars to mental health services for children and schools.
The Biden administration has also tightened regulations on so-called ghost guns and stabilizing braces, an accessory used in at least two mass shootings. President Joe Biden has also signed executive orders expanding background checks on gun sales, and has called for reinstating a ban on so-called “assault weapons," or certain semi-automatic rifles.
Still, the political prospects for that step look bleak at best. And NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre made clear during his Friday speech that the gun-rights group will mobilize supporters to fight such efforts.
“Gun-hating politicians should never go to bed unafraid of what this association, and all of our millions of members, can do to their political careers,” he said.
Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press data journalist Larry Fenn contributed to this report. Arleigh Rodgers also contributed. She is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.