Jun 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The gun lobby's growing divide

Photo illustration of a person holding a gun behind a flag that reads, "Come and take it"

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

There's a growing divide within America's gun lobby, as groups representing firearms manufacturers and individual owners splinter over federal gun-control legislation and what gun culture means in an increasingly diverse country.

Driving the news: The National Rifle Association, the nation's leading but weakened gun rights organization, says a federal law to stop potentially dangerous people from obtaining weapons should be a non-starter. But the National Sports Shooting Foundation, the industry trade group that's a rising lobbying force, says it thinks there's a deal to be made.

  • Red flag laws, already in place in many states, can be a palatable compromise as long as adequate "due process considerations" are addressed, Mark Oliva, NSSF's managing director for public affairs, told Axios.
  • The NRA disagrees, saying in a statement that "the real purpose... is simply to empower judges to nullify Second Amendment rights with the stroke of a pen."
  • Other groups including Gun Owners of America and the American Firearms Association also strenuously oppose red flag laws.

Why it matters: The NRA has been beset by internal feuds and legal scrutiny, leaving an opening for other gun rights groups to fill the void.

  • Some have staked out an even more hardline stance than the NRA.
  • In contrast, the NSSF's openness to bipartisan compromise is noteworthy as public records show its growing advocacy footprint.
  • The NRA remains a far larger contributor to federal political candidates. And its $237 million budget in 2020, the latest year for which annual numbers are available, dwarfed NSSF's $40 million.
  • But last year NSSF outspent the NRA on lobbying for the first time, and it's outpacing the group this year as well, according to OpenSecrets data.

What they're saying: NSSF's Oliva said he was "disappointed" by President Biden's speech on Thursday that called for broader restrictions such as a federal assault weapons ban and universal background check legislation, both of which NSSF opposes.

  • But "the Senate doesn't seem to be derailed by the president's divisive comments," Oliva said. "They are continuing to work in good faith, and I'm encouraged."

Be smart: The approach reflects the group's desire to ward off measures that would adversely impact the industry — while putting a more progressive face on American gun ownership.

What we're watching: In digital ads this year, NSSF has worked to convey gun owners as more diverse than the stereotype it says they've been saddled with — male, white and conservative.

  • Its ads feature female, Asian-American, Latina and gay spokespeople, and promote NSSF safety measures such as its distribution of free gun locks.
  • Days after the Uvalde shooting that left 19 elementary school children dead, NSSF purchased ads on Snapchat courting college graduates in Maine, Montana and West Virginia, states represented by senators crucial to any legislative action, according to advertising data from the platform.

The bottom line: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated U.S. firearm ownership, with about 14 million first-time gun buyers since 2020 and large spikes in the Black, Latino and Asian-American communities, Oliva told Axios.

  • "Some of these politicians have been very, very purposeful in trying to tie gun ownership to white supremacy, especially after after the incident in Buffalo," he said.
  • "What we're showing is that we're America. We're all stripes. We're all walks of life. And we're gun owners. We do we do this lawfully daily. We're not a threat to anybody else."
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