The National Rifle Association began 2018 with plenty of reason for optimism.
Two horrific mass shootings had rocked the nation in the previous three months ― one of them the deadliest in modern U.S. history ― but by January, any fervor for gun control in Congress had mostly subsided. With a staunch ally in the White House and GOP majorities in both branches of Congress, at least through the end of the year, the NRA seemed positioned to advance its pro-gun agenda over the next 12 months, further cementing its standing as one of the nation’s most politically influential organizations.
Instead, in the waning days of 2018, the NRA now appears to be worse off than it has been in years. The group has made no progress on its federal legislative priorities, and reportedly faces stiff financial headwinds, as well as the looming threat of a pair of explosive scandals involving Russian money and influence.
Perhaps more concerning for the NRA, this year made clear that it’s losing its stranglehold on the conversation around firearms in the U.S. The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, led to surging momentum in favor of stronger gun laws. A student-led movement emerged in response, quickly singling out the NRA as its chief enemy, and ultimately helping gun safety candidates win victories in the midterm elections. Doctors also jumped into the anti-NRA fray later in the year, publicly thumping the group over its demands that the medical community keep quiet on issues of gun violence.
Despite the challenges for the NRA, experts say it’s too early to know if 2018 was merely a blip or a sign of worse things to come. But as the group looks to claw back power in 2019, here are some of the issues it’s up against.
Losing Its Grip
For more than two decades, the NRA has been the most powerful force in the gun debate. The NRA’s opposition has meanwhile ebbed and flowed, with gun reform advocacy typically swelling after high-profile shootings and subsiding over time, sometimes without much progress to show for it.
That pattern was once again put to the test in 2018. After the Parkland shooting, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and around the country organized massive nationwide demonstrations demanding action. The protests may not have moved Congress, but change did come elsewhere ― in 2018 alone, 27 states passed 67 new gun safety laws, according to a tally by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Many of those measures passed with support from Republicans.
The youth-led movement was also able to help provide a spark for sustained momentum in favor of gun reform. Polling suggested there was still substantial enthusiasm around the issue this election season, especially among suburban voters. And for the first time ever this midterm election, gun safety organizations actually outspent the NRA, as the pro-gun group’s outlays fell sharply this cycle.
After years of dominance on the issue of firearms, a formidable foe may finally have emerged to challenge the NRA’s supremacy, said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who’s written extensively on gun policy.
“They’ve kind of been cut down to size and now it’s a much more even contest,” he said. “That’s what the gun safety groups have been after ― a way to rectify the structural imbalance that has favored the NRA politically.”
New Calls For Action
The unprecedented activity by gun safety groups this election season proved to be a worthy investment, with a dozens of so-called “gun sense” candidates winning key congressional races and helping Democrats retake the House.
“The midterm elections demonstrated that a growing number of candidates could campaign expressly on supporting stronger gun laws, including in states that are not particularly liberal, and win on that campaign without suffering bad consequences,” Spitzer said.
Democratic leaders have since vowed to take swift action on gun reform in the new congressional session, likely beginning with a bill to require federal background checks on all firearm sales. With Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans still in control of the Senate, such a proposal would have very little chance of becoming law. But even a House vote could provide fuel for gun safety advocates and serve as a wedge issue for Democrats who feel the political landscape on guns has shifted in their favor.
In effect, they could follow a path like the one House Republicans took when they voted repeatedly to repeal Obamacare, even while Democrats controlled the Senate and Barack Obama was president, said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and an expert on gun policy.
“Republicans did it over and over again, it was a symbolic thing, it appealed to voters, they knew it wasn’t going to get adopted, but they took 70 something votes on it anyway,” he said.
But such a strategy could also be risky, as it would likely provide the NRA with fodder to mobilize its supporters ahead of the 2020, said Scott Melzer, a professor at Albion College who’s written about the history of the gun rights movement.
“The NRA is especially prone to identifying bogeymen, or in this case, a bogeywoman in [Speaker of the House-elect] Nancy Pelosi, who will serve as the face of the threat to gun rights,” said Melzer. “That’s been the playbook for 20-plus years and it’s been highly effective.”
NRA In The Red
The NRA has faced serious questions about its long-term fiscal health in recent months, after a string of reports showing falling membership dues, sharp declines in revenue, and plummeting election spending in the midterms following a record high in 2016.
Financial filings for nonprofits like the NRA can be slow-moving and sparse, so they don’t always provide the most detailed or up-to-date reading on a group’s financial situation. But the NRA’s 2017 filing, just revealed last month, suggests they have plenty to be worried about.
The documents showed the NRA was $31.8 million in the red at the end of last year, thanks in large part to slower cash flow. The negative balance was a 10-year low, according to Ohio State University professor Brian Mittendorf, who recently published an analysis on the group’s finances. The NRA was also among just 7 percent of U.S. nonprofits that ended 2017 with a negative balance, Mittendorf found.
The 2017 financial documents were published amid reports of budget cutbacks ― including the end of free coffee at NRA headquarters ― and layoffs at NRATV, the organization’s fledgling video streaming service. Earlier in the year, the NRA claimed in a New York lawsuit over its controversial “Carry Guard” insurance program that financial pressures could force it to shutter NRATV entirely. The group also increased its membership dues for the second time in two years over the summer, suggesting it’s in need of cash.
But again, it’s not clear how much the NRA’s financial picture may have changed over the course of 2018. There were some indications that the group may have seen a membership bump in the months after the Parkland shooting.
In March, the first full month after Parkland, the NRA’s Political Victory Fund was able to raise $2.4 million, the entity’s largest single-month haul this century. While that achievement may show the NRA still has fundraising chops, the Political Victory Fund is supposed to spend money on behalf of candidates and campaigns during elections. And as we now know, the NRA’s overall election spending this cycle ended up at just a fraction of previous totals.
A Russian Cloud
The NRA has spent most of 2018 under intense scrutiny over a set of still-developing scandals involving Russian money and influence.
The first broke in January, with reports that the FBI was probing whether Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin, had illegally funneled money through the NRA to the Trump campaign and into other races. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections. The Federal Election Commission has also reportedly launched an investigation into the matter.
Torshin and the NRA have both denied any wrongdoing. But as McClatchy has reported extensively, a number of influential Russians, including Torshin and other allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had been cultivating ties with top NRA figures in the years leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
Then there’s the matter of convicted Russian spy Maria Butina, who this month pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the U.S. while acting as an agent of the Russian Federation.
Butina, a Russian gun rights activist, admitted to taking orders from Torshin while working to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” As part of her plot, Butina attended NRA events and sought to ingratiate herself with NRA officials. Her sentencing is set for February. Torshin meanwhile recently quietly resigned from his position at the Russian central bank.
It remains to be seen what will come of these scandals, or whether they’ll end up further damaging the NRA. But there’s also more controversy for the NRA to be concerned about. In recent weeks new allegations have emerged charging that the NRA and Trump campaign illegally coordinated advertising in the final days of the 2016 election.
Despite the NRA’s tough year, experts cautioned against premature readings of the group’s demise.
“The NRA remains one of the most powerful political organizations in America,” said Winkler. “There should be no mistake about that.”
Winkler pointed to Congress as evidence of the NRA’s enduring clout. Lawmakers may not have passed new pro-gun laws in 2018, but they also didn’t vote on a bump stock ban, he said, a measure that the NRA opposed but that the majority of Americans supported. (The Justice Department recently moved to outlaw the firearm accessories with a policy change, effectively circumventing the legislative process.)
In fact, the only gun legislation Congress has voted on since the Las Vegas shooting was a package containing a top NRA priority ― a measure to allow concealed carry license holders to legally carry their handguns in other states. The House passed the bill largely along party lines, but the Senate didn’t take it up.
Regardless of how bad 2018 proves to be for the NRA, the group is likely to face structural challenges as it tries to bounce back in 2019 and beyond.
“They’re not going to attract women, they’re not going to attract ethnic minorities, they’re not going to attract mainstream Americans, because they’re too far down the path of kind of rabid, apocalyptic, angry, defensive style that has increasingly been their meat and potatoes for 20 years,” said Spitzer. “I don’t think the needle’s going to move a whole lot in the year to come.”
Still, others are more skeptical that the NRA’s struggles are likely to continue over the longer term. This year certainly showed there’s a crack in the NRA’s armor, said Melzer. But what happens next will ultimately depend on whether the NRA’s opponents can effectively exploit that newly exposed weakness.
“It’s a question of whether or not the NRA really is going to be opposed by a gun control movement that can shepherd the same kinds of resources that it historically has in terms of money and people and power,” he said.
The answer to that isn’t clear yet, said Melzer. But it’s looking more possible now than it has in a long time.