Justice

Here's Exactly How the NRA Misleads Its Members

March 16th 2016

By:
Matthew Segal
Kyle Jaeger

The National Rifle Association consistently ranks among the most powerful lobbying groups in the U.S., spending millions on political contributions and advertising campaigns each year to influence lawmakers on gun policy. But money and marketing are not the group's only weapons. More than 5 million members reportedly pay dues to the NRA, and that kind of manpower is especially formidable on Capitol Hill as well as within state legislatures. 

ATTN: spoke to U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who takes pride in his "F" rating from the NRA.

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Van Hollen has felt the ire of the NRA firsthand. In 2000, he helped to pass the nation's first law requiring built-in trigger locks for guns purchased in Maryland, a measure designed to prevent accidental gun shootings. To NRA lobbyist Greg Costam, however, this requirement was nothing more than "a de facto gun ban" and "very dangerous," he told The Washington Post. The NRA tried to derail the bill by launching phone and television campaigns, mobilizing members in a last-ditch effort to persuade legislators to oppose the gun safety law.

"The NRA fought us tooth and nail — they lost, we beat them — but it was the first clear example that the NRA would mislead its members and take every measure to block even these common sense measures to prevent kids from dying in accidental shooting deaths," Van Hollen told ATTN:.

How the NRA misleads its members.

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In the weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, a national debate about gun safety ensued, and reform advocates hoped the momentum would push lawmakers to advance gun reform measures. Yet the push for new policies — including a popular push to close the gun show loophole, which 91 percent of Americans supported — was rejected.

The NRA has been widely blamed for this inaction by virtue of telling their members that reform efforts are a ruse to seize their guns. At a town hall event in January, President Barack Obama echoed this point. He noted that the lobbying group previously supported background checks for gun sales in 1999. Obama told CNN, "we put out a proposal that is common sense, modest, does not claim to solve every problem, is respectful of the Second Amendment, and the way it [was] described is that we're trying to take away everybody's guns."

"They run the same play every time," Van Hollen told ATTN:. "I saw it when I was passing the Maryland built-in trigger law. [The NRA] told their members that this was really just a step to take away their guns."

"That's when they send in their checks to the NRA headquarters. That's why they've got really glitzy offices and well-paid lobbyists over there. And they get that money by misleading people and being cozy with the gun manufacturers."

At the same time that reform advocates pushed for gun safety legislation after Sandy Hook, NRA members donated heavily to the group's political action committee, the NRA Political Victory Fund, CNN reported. From 2006 to 2014, individual contributions to the PAC doubled to $22 million.

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Who does the NRA really represent?

"They're representing their Washington lobbyists, who have a huge, glitzy national headquarters, big salaries," Van Hollen says. "So when all those people send in their contributions, thinking that their contributions are necessary in order to protect their hunting rifles — but really what it's doing is just to empower and enrich these high-price Washington lobbyists."

Financial documents show that the group's lobbying expenditures have steadily increased since 2008, reaching its highest point in 2015 when the NRA spent more than $3.6 million. To finance its lobbying efforts, the group has a separate 501(c)(4) arm called the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, through which it is able to receive non tax-deductible donations, and make contributions to political candidates and causes.

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ATTN: reached out to the National Rifle Association for comment on the congressman's allegations that it misleads its members, but the NRA has not responded to our inquiry by the time of publication.

Read more from our interview with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland).

ATTN: Why are you proud to have an "F" rating from the NRA?

CVH: I'm proud to have an "F" rating from NRA because this is an organization that has blocked common sense measures that would save lives. This is an organization whose Washington lobby arm misleads their members around the country in order to enrich the lobby organization, and they use scare tactics to get their members to send money and, in the process, block common sense measures that we know will save lives in this country.

And so, they are therefore complicit in the fact that we have a huge toll from gun violence in this country because there are common sense measures we can take that will prevent some gun violence and some gun killings, and they're blocking those efforts and doing so by misleading their members around the country.

ATTN: Does the NRA represent gun manufacturers?

CVH: Well, sure they do. The manufacturers certainly are in bed with the NRA and they have a very cozy relationship. In fact, just to make that point — and this issue has come up recently — Congress back in the early 2000s passed this outrageous law to shield the gun industry from liability from wrongdoing. They are the most protected industry in America.

We regulate the safety of automobiles, we regulate the safety of toys, and yet, there's a law in place that says that if a gun dealer or gun manufacturer engages in negligent conduct, you can't sue them for damages. They're protected from that suit by a federal law that prevents it. No other industry has that kind of protection, and the NRA lobbied strongly for that law, which also protects the gun industry. So they're in bed together. They have a very cozy relationship.

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ATTN: What do you make of the argument that responsible gun owners can help reduce gun violence?

CVH: The statistics show overwhelmingly that having a huge mass of guns circulating in our communities increases the number of people killed by guns because it's much easier for them to fall into the wrong hands. No one is saying that there's one thing that's going to prevent all gun violence; the point here is that there are measures we can take that we know will significantly reduce death by gun violence.

In fact, there was a Johns Hopkins University study done recently that showed a dramatic decrease in deaths by guns in the state of Connecticut, which enacted a simple permit-to-purchase requirement, meaning that in order to get a gun, you've got to get a permit. And to get the permit, you go to a law enforcement-designated spot, you get fingerprinted, you get a license just like a license to drive a car, and only people who have these licenses can buy guns. The result of that Connecticut law, which has now been in place for long enough to measure the benefits, cut deaths by gun violence by 40 percent, and that's why I've introduced at the federal level a bill to encourage all states to adopt the permit-to-purchase.

ATTN: Do you think Congress is likely to accomplish anything on gun safety in the near future?

CVH: I think if the American people mobilize on this issue — and I think they're increasingly fed up with inaction on this — that we can begin to move to enact some of these common sense measures. In the Senate, they actually got over 50 percent of the votes after those awful Newtown shootings. They got over 50 percent of the votes for a universal background check provision. It was then blocked by a filibuster. So, the majority of the voters were there in the Senate, and in the House.

I will tell you, Republican speakers have not even allowed a vote in the House on these measure. Why is that? They don't want constituents to know if they're voting to allow people on the terrorist watch list to still get guns, and so they won't allow democracy to work its will. I mean, people should be outraged because they want an accountability-free zone on Capitol Hill. They don't want to vote in the light of day on these measures, so even after Newtown, even after the daily toll of gun violence, we have not had a vote in the House of Representatives on universal criminal background checks, permit-to-purchase, preventing people on the terrorist watch list from getting guns, because if they had a vote, I think you'd find a lot of people being pressured to — for Congress to finally do the right thing.

RELATED: The NRA Just Responded to Obama's Move on Guns