HOUSTON – For a brief moment in 2012, it seemed like a national stalemate over guns was breaking.
Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old gunman, had forced his way into a Connecticut elementary school and massacred 26 people, mostly children, with an AR-15-style rifle. Flags flew at half-staff. A sporting goods chain suspended sales of similar weapons. And longtime gun-rights supporters from both parties in Congress said they were willing to consider new legislation. The issue was complex, then-President Barack Obama said, but everyone was obligated to try.
Then, one week after the bloodshed at Sandy Hook elementary, the most powerful gun lobby in the U.S. made its public position known and the effort unraveled.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a defiant speech that blamed video games, cowardly lawmakers, the media and a perverted society for the carnage, while calling for armed guards at schools across the U.S.
Nearly a decade later, the nation is at another crossroads. A gunman killed at least 19 children with a similar weapon at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday in the nation's second mass killing this month. This time, however, LaPierre didn't need to address the bloodshed — the organization's Republican allies in Congress did.
“The problem starts with people. Not with guns.” Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who holds an A-rating and an endorsement from the NRA, told reporters Wednesday, bluntly summing up the position of many in the GOP, especially considering the party's recent turn further right. "I’m very sorry it happened. But guns are not the problem, OK. People are the problem. That’s where it starts. And we’ve had guns forever, and we’re gonna continue to have guns.”
Much has changed since Sandy Hook. The NRA is on the ropes after a series of costly financial scandals and lawsuits. And an ascendant gun control movement has poured tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns to counter their message. The group Moms Demand Action, for example, was founded the day after the Sandy Hook shooting.
“How many more children have to die?" founder Shannon Watts said this week. "How many parents, teachers, shoppers and worshippers, and lives must be taken for our leaders to do something? Any senator who sides with the gun lobby, who blocks life-saving change, is choosing carnage and gun industry profits over the precious lives of our children.”
But even as mass shootings continue unabated, in Washington one thing remains the same: Republicans and Democrats both agree there is little chance that legislation tightening gun laws will be passed by a narrowly divided Congress. The gridlock, which remains even as public opinion supports some tighter gun laws, offers testament to the enduring influence of gun rights groups, which have spent $171 million lobbying the federal government since 1989.
“I want to be more optimistic. But I don’t think it will change,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
The NRA isn't the same powerhouse it once was, and in its wake other, further right gun groups have gained, like the Gun Owners of America, which bills itself as the “no compromise” gun lobby. There are multiple gun rights alliances operating at state levels wielding enormous influence in legislatures as well. But in 40 years of working to loosen gun laws, the NRA has largely set the cultural tone on the right and is still the most prominent.
“You don’t need the NRA, really, to take the lead anymore because opposition to gun laws is so much now a litmus test of conservatism and the Republican Party that it has its own momentum,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy.
“As we’ve seen it stumble in recent years, it’s not that gun culture has overall become weakened,” adds David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture. “There’s other membership organizations that have arisen or grown to fill some of the gap that the NRA used to serve."
The NRA has a built a well of goodwill by disbursing more than $70 million to further the political ambitions of Republicans who currently serve in Congress, often by running ads attacking Democrats, according to an analysis of data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. They’ve spent a comparatively small $171,000 helping pro-gun Democrats who are currently in the House or Senate, the analysis shows.
The NRA’s gold-standard endorsements are also sought after by Republican candidates, particularly in primary elections, where they serve as a cultural shorthand for what it means to be a conservative. Receiving a poor letter grade from the organization can be a major source of concern.
Still, as the NRA gathered this past week in Houston for its first convention since 2019, current and former board members say the secretive organization must confront a growing crisis.
The New York Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the organization. Court proceedings have revealed how LaPierre and others diverted tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips and no-show contracts for associates, among other questionable expenditures.
That led the organization to file for bankruptcy in 2021. But a judge dismissed the case, which was brought by LaPierre without the consent of the NRA board, ruling it was not filed in good faith.
The financial difficulties have led to mass layoffs, a reduction in programs and a sharp drop in political spending, which had reached an apex in 2016 when the organization spent $54 million, most of it helping Donald Trump win the White House.
NRA contributions have dropped sharply in the past two years, according to campaign finance data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
“The NRA is becoming really a shell of its former self,” said former NRA board member Rocky Marshall. “It cannot carry out the mission of the NRA because all the money is being spent on attorneys.”
Marshall is backing a push to replace LaPierre with Allen West, the former chairman of the Texas GOP party. Marshall is also hoping to pull back from the culture wars and find common ground with gun-safety advocates. “Instead of being antagonistic or defensive, we need to have a dialogue because we can do a lot more to prevent gun violence like this.”
One area where the NRA remains formidable is its lobbying of the federal government. In 2021, the organization nearly tied its past records set in 2017 and 2018, spending over $4.8 million, records show. Firearms themselves are part of the culture as well. Gun purchases grew enormously during the pandemic, and a 2021 National Firearms Survey found that 81 million Americans are gun owners. While the NRA only claims a fraction of that, about 5 million, as members, they tend to be vocal.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that declarations of the group’s demise are “wishful thinking on the part of our detractors.”
“The reality is significantly different and the results speak for themselves,” he said.
Still, an NRA brand that some view as toxic has presented an opportunity for other gun-rights groups, including some that strike a more measured tone.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun sellers, spent over $4.8 million on lobbying last year, reaching parity with the NRA. It's avoided heated partisan rhetoric and has a growing influence as the NRA star has waned.
“We are not going to approach those who disagree with our viewpoints or our industry in a denigrating manner,” said Mark Oliva, the managing director of public affairs for NSSF.
The gun rights movement also continues to have success at the state level, where it has focused on repealing laws requiring a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Roughly half the states in the U.S. have rolled back such laws, with Texas, Indiana and Tennessee all doing so in the past year.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to soon issue its biggest gun ruling in more than a decade, one expected to make it easier to carry guns in public in some of the nation’s largest cities.
For gun owners who traveled from around the country for the convention, the NRA remains a lodestar. Barbara Galis, 75, of Racine, Wisconsin, said she is concerned about the allegations of mismanagement but isn't sure another organization “has the influence to support gun rights.”
“What other avenue do we have? Where do we go?” she said.
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City and Slodysko from Washington.