Whether you're an NRA supporter or are fundamentally opposed to the group, it's hard to deny its role in reshaping the national debate around guns.
Consider that as recently as 2008, fewer than 4 in 10 Americans prioritized gun rights over gun control in polling by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Today, Pew data shows that a majority of Americans now favor gun rights, the first time that's happened in more than 20 years.
Driving that shift has been a wildly effective NRA political operation in both Washington, D.C. and state capitals across the nation, backed by a passionate member base that numbers into the millions. Yet to many, the inner workings of the group are largely a puzzle.
For a better understanding of who the NRA is and how it's grown so successful, FRONTLINE spoke to three former insiders: John Aquilino, a onetime spokesman for the group; Warren Cassidy, a former executive vice president of the NRA; and Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist. Here are excerpts from those conversations.
In its early days, the NRA's mission focused mainly on marksmanship and gun safety. But beginning with the 1975 establishment of its lobbying arm — the Institute for Legislative Action — the organization started to wade deeper into politics. Today, the man most closely identified with the NRA's political rise is its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. To insiders, LaPierre has always been a brilliant strategist, but when he joined the NRA, they say, he was hardly a gun enthusiast.
Richard Feldman, former NRA lobbyist: He wasn't what people would have called a "gunny," somebody who grew up around guns, who enjoyed shooting guns. He was more like me, in the sense he was a political junkie. And he enjoyed the politics of the fight. …
In the late 1970s, the NRA was just really getting going, in terms of being a political organization. It was only involved in politics and legislation since '75, and really since 1977. …
Wayne took a position in state and local early on, right out of college. You get thrown into politics, and if you're a political junkie, like Wayne or like myself, it was a wonderful job. You're working with all these people and having these fights and you're cutting your teeth.
The beauty of lobbying is that you're lobbying in the off-political season, and you're doing politics in the political season. And on a high-visibility issue like firearms, it's always both. There's a lot of politics in the legislation, and sometimes a fair amount of policy in the politics. So it keeps you going year in and year out. And he was at the right place at the right time, with the right skills, to move up in the organization.
John Aquilino, former NRA spokesman: Wayne is a political junkie. Besides that and ice cream, those are the things that float his boat. He was having a great time working with state races and whatnot.
Somewhere along the line we had a lot of turnover with people. And the guy I work for said, "John, go see if Wayne wants to take over the federal lobby." Wayne is not the most — He doesn't make snap decisions. As a matter of fact it took me a week to pretty much kick his butt and threaten to give the job to somebody else before he went, "Oh, oh, I'll take it."
He is more professor than a leader. He's more of a student than a scholar I think. Very nice person. Very mild mannered person. … Pretty much the safest place you could be with Wayne and a gun back then was in a different state, because he really did not know anything about guns. Politics, yes. Guns, no.
NRA as "Religion"
In time, of course, LaPierre would come to believe "very strongly in the issue," says Feldman, and that change coincided with what he calls a "more doctrinaire, more ideological" transformation within the gun rights community itself. The NRA is "more a religion," says Cassidy, with the idea of individual liberty among members' most cherished beliefs. And it's this same commitment to liberty and defending Second Amendment rights that can make the community deeply skeptical of gun control advocates.
Richard Feldman: Thirty years ago, the National Rifle Association was just entering its climb to power as an American icon, and lobbying and politics. And it was far less clear, 30 years ago, who the ultimate winners were going to be in this fight over guns and politics. So it was a lot more of a struggle that was philosophical, and much more like a religious battle at the time, than a business interest.
John Aquilino: If you look at the typical NRA member — and it could be someone who has a high school education, or not a high school education, a Ph.D. and beyond — pretty much it's the same message. It's the same theme. And that is, our freedom to choose, our freedom to decide is what we're going to keep.
The Second Amendment is basically the amendment that embodies all of that. … It really has nothing to do with guns; it has to do with freedom. It has to do with, again, do you give your freedom to the government or do you keep it within yourself, within your community, within your family? And that's the broad appeal. … The NRA is the closest thing that a membership group can have to just pure patriotism.
Winning in Washington
Such strength of conviction has meant that NRA supporters are among the most politically engaged voters in U.S. politics. In 2013, for example, a Pew poll found that a quarter of those who prioritized gun rights said they had contributed money to a like-minded organization, compared to just 6 percent for gun-control advocates. It's this type of engagement — combined with a substantial war chest — that has made the group a dominant force in Washington.
John Aquilino: The NRA's membership, if it had one trait, one political trait, they vote. That simple. … I once talked to a senator who actually ran later for the presidency. And he absolutely said he was in no way, shape or form going to go our way. I said, "OK, fine." And then I made two phone calls to people who happen to be friends of that senator's major financial backers. And then all of a sudden he went our way. And that's what goes on. That's the deal. You are a politician. You want to get elected. You want votes. NRA has votes."
Warren Cassidy: It's simple. The playbook is you support the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights, the right to keep and bear arms, and we'll do everything we can to see that you're elected or re-elected. It's as simple as that."
Richard Feldman: The strongest pressure, and the most important pressure, was always not what the lobbyists could do, but getting your membership to let the legislator know what they thought.
A legislator doesn't have to really care what a lobbyist thinks. I mean, maybe they're good for a $5,000 PAC contribution. But that's not the end all or be all in any congressional race these days.
But, if you hear from 500 constituents in your congressional district, you can be pretty certain that there are probably 20,000 people thinking about it … plus their friends and family. You've got a serious problem on your hands.
When Mass Shootings Happen
In the aftermath of shootings such as the ones in Newtown, Conn., Tucson, Ariz. and Aurora, Colo., the NRA's critics have raised questions about whether efforts to expand gun rights have factored in to such tragedies. It can be a sensitive topic inside the NRA. As its former president, Charlton Heston, lamented in the wake of Columbine: "America must stop this predictable pattern of reaction. When an isolated, terrible event occurs, our phones ring, demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable. Why us? Because their story needs a villain."
In their conversations with FRONTLINE, former insiders voiced a similar view, urging the public not to let emotion guide decisions about policy.
Richard Feldman: If there was going to be a vote 48 hours after Columbine, when you vote emotionally, just like we did in this country a few weeks after 9/11, with the Patriot Act, and decide that our government should be in charge of everything and have a security system that puts dictatorships to shame, you know, everybody is on board briefly.
But, when you appraise a situation, and you're passing laws that are going to impact the future, it's always wise to take a little breather and go: "What are we doing here? And what's really going on?" And, if it's wise to do it today, it will be wise to do it six weeks from today. …
I'd ask the victims or the relatives of victims that question after Newtown. … I'd say: "You're against and want to ban the AR-15, this terrible gun. So, if your loved one, your sister had been shot and killed with a different caliber and different make of gun, would that have eased the pain, even a little to your family? No. So, you're not really against this gun. You're against anybody misusing a gun. Me too."
So, instead of talking about the gun, why aren't we talking about how the individual obtained the gun, what can we do about their not getting the gun, and changing that discussion, and zeroing in on the problem, instead of talking about the big issue, guns bad/good. That's a kind of fruitless discussion.
John Aquilino: Nobody's going to sit there and go: "You know what? This person's crazy. We have to do something about our mental health system." No, this person used a gun, we have to do something about the guns. I mean, there have been studies published in journals saying, "It's the trigger that pulls the finger." Excuse me? But that's the kind of thing that the NRA has been bombarded with.
Warren Cassidy: Any politician who bases what he wants to do based on the emotion of those, doesn't deserve to hold office. And I'd say the same thing to the families. I mourn with you. If we can do something to help and all the stuff that goes on. But if a policy that resulted in your son's or daughter's death is not necessarily the reason for the death — you may think it is — but if it isn't, it can't be changed just on the emotion of the day.