Why is the National Rifle Association so powerful?

Why is the National Rifle Association so powerful? Here’s a clue: it’s not (just) about the money.

The vast majority of Americans support gun control, and yet Congress has failed to toughen laws even in the wake of a series of mass shootings. With the NRA pouring money into political races at record levels it is an easy argument to make that the gun lobby has bought Washington – but that fails to paint a full picture.

In 2017, the NRA spent at least $4.1m on lobbying – more than the $3.1m it spent in all of 2016. That’s real money, but for comparison, the dairy industry has spent $4.4m in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The National Association of Realtors, one of the biggest spenders, has paid out $32.2m lobbying on housing issues. The US Chamber of Commerce, the largest spender of all, has spent $104m.

The NRA’s influence does not stem solely from lobbying. Thanks to the supreme court’s Citizens United decision, the spigot is now wide open for “independent expenditures” allowing groups and individuals to back – or attack – candidates, as long as those campaigns are not made in cooperation with, or at the request of, a candidate.

The NRA bet big on 2016’s presidential election, making independent expenditures worth $53.4m. And the cash seemed to have been well spent. The NRA poured $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost, according to CRP. Its only big loss was in Nevada, for the seat vacated by the Democratic minority leader, Harry Reid.

Nor does the power of the guns manufacturers fully explain the NRA’s power. Guns are big(ish) business. Gun and ammunition manufacturers will have revenues of $13.3bn and profits of $1bn in 2017, according to IBISWorld. Gun and ammunition stores this year will have revenues of $85.bn and profits of $256m.

But there are far bigger industries. The auto industry (which has spent $51.8m on lobbying so far in 2017), is on course for revenues of $105.3bn and profits of $3.1bn in 2017.

The NRA’s influence, too, is out of proportion to its financial firepower. This is a world with far bigger spenders in Washington – the billionaire Koch brothers spent $889m on the election. And far bigger industries: Apple’s revenues were a record $52bn in the last three months alone and their cash, along with the other tech giants, makes the gun industry look like a rounding error.

The NRA’s lobbying spend over the past decade 2017 spend to date, $m 201720162015201420132012201120102009200801234 Guardian graphic | Source: opensecrets.org

Dan Auble, a senior researcher at CRP, said NRA’s spending was at a record high but remained “paltry” in comparison to groups like the pharmaceutical industry.

If the gun lobby is to be successful, it needs to spend money in Washington, and it does. But the amount alone does not explain the NRA’s success.

“The NRA is not successful because of its money. To be sure, it is hard to be a force in American politics without money. The NRA has money that it uses to help its favored candidates get elected. But the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters,” said Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

Revenue comparison: gun industry v auto industry Projected 2017 revenues, $bn Gun and ammunition manufacturersGun and ammunition storesAuto industry020406080100 Guardian graphic | Source: IBISWorld

By choosing its battles wisely, the NRA has shown an ability to swing primary elections in favor of pro-gun candidates, Winkler said. “That’s the real source of their strength,” he said. That and its use of a relatively small number of highly motivated people to push an agenda that appears out of step with the general population, which, according to recent polling, is in favour of stricter gun laws.

The 145-year-old organization claims 5 million active members, although that number is disputed. But whatever its actual size, that membership is a powerful tool, said Robert Spitzer, professor of crime, law and policy and gun…

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