With mass shootings back in the news following a massacre in Boulder, Colorado — less than a week after a series of armed attacks on spas in the Atlanta area — an open question is whether the National Rifle Association is still a politically powerful organization.
The horrific events of the past week come in the wake of the NRA’s January announcement that it was filing for bankruptcy protection amid New York’s legal effort to dissolve it. As a result, the strength of America’s preeminent defender of gun rights has been seriously called into question. This has led some to wonder whether the renewed calls for gun control that will surely follow the recent shootings might, this time, lead to a different outcome than Americans are used to.
Regardless of the outcomes of the gun control debates that will occur over the next few weeks, however, the outcome of another ongoing, high-profile — and seemingly unrelated — conflict will also shape the organization’s future standing in American politics: the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Inextricably wrapped up with the Trump wing of the GOP and its vision for the country, the NRA could find itself feeling lonely in Washington if the MAGA faction loses control of the party.
NRA is losing its political clout
When newly elected President Donald Trump spoke to the NRA’s members at its 2017 annual meeting in Atlanta, the organization was on top of the political world. It had gone all in to elect a candidate who was seen by many as an underdog. And its efforts paid off: Trump not only clearly appreciated the NRA’s role in electing him, he also advanced a political worldview that closely aligned with its own. This nationalistic flavor of right-wing populism portrays the world as a deeply threatening place — a place in which “real Americans” need guns to defend themselves against criminals, immigrants and elites in government and media. With Trump in the White House, the NRA had special access to a president who would serve as a prominent advocate of its political outlook.
The NRA’s close relationship with Trump did not come out of the blue, but instead marked a new chapter in its longer-term alliance with the Republican Party. The NRA — despite some claims to the contrary — actively opposed gun control as early as the 1920s. Nonetheless, its efforts to defeat or weaken gun regulations through the mid-1970s were nonpartisan; the organization didn’t endorse candidates and the gun issue didn’t divide the parties.
Things changed in the late-1970s. An insurgent conservative movement called the New Right was gaining momentum, advancing an ideological perspective — including support for gun rights — very similar to the NRA’s. With the New Right gaining traction in the Republican Party, a group of activist NRA members who wanted to take the organization in a more explicitly conservative direction launched an effort to take over the organization. They succeeded at the NRA’s 1977 annual meeting — now known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati” — and, following their successful coup, quickly took the group in a more hard-line direction.
When New Right champion Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, the NRA made its first political endorsement, ushering in a new period in which it would be an important GOP ally.
The NRA, it is now clear, had great timing. Reagan didn’t simply win the White House, but rather he ushered in a new era that has in many important ways defined American politics ever since. The NRA, in other words, chose to join a winning team — and did so right at the start of that team’s success. It should be no surprise, then, that the organization’s gradually deepening alignment with the GOP has paid dividends in the decades since Reagan’s victory.
Republicans in Congress have blocked gun control efforts so consistently that the issue has often remained off the legislative agenda altogether. Many states around the country — led by Republicans — have substantially loosened gun regulations. And conservative jurists have expanded the scope of the Second Amendment, with the Supreme Court holding in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller decision that the Constitution protects an individual right to bear arms.
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Historically a great asset, the NRA’s alignment with the Republican Party — and Trump and his allies in particular — could become a liability. Following Trump’s loss, subsequent refusal to concede and eventual role in inciting the failed insurrection of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, a battle for the future of the GOP is underway. Although Trump has certainly left his mark on the Republican Party organization and has maintained the loyalty of lots of right-wing activists and state party officials, many of the party’s most prominent national leaders — including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — have condemned him. Trump avoided conviction in his unprecedented second impeachment trial, but it’s clear that some in the party are ready to move on.
Democrats against NRA
Given not only the NRA’s deep ties to Trumpism but also its long-term advancement of the sort of insurrectionary rhetoric — portraying guns as protection against government tyranny —Trump used to promote the events of Jan. 6, a shift away from Trump would likely also involve a shift away from the NRA’s approach to politics.
A split with the NRA-aligned, Trump wing of the party might even encourage some Republican policymakers to support new gun regulations, many of which — including the background check requirements passed by the House this month — are very publicly popular, even among Republican voters. In short, if the party does move on — or even if it experiences a protracted battle between its Trump and non-Trump wings—the NRA could find itself sidelined politically: estranged from some in the GOP, but still toxic to Democrats.
Indeed, after four decades of alignment with the Republican Party, the NRA is not well positioned to pivot politically. As its place in the GOP coalition grew, the organization moved further to the right politically and by the Trump years it had become a vocal advocate for the politics of the party’s right fringe. Many of its supporters — having adopted the organization’s political worldview — are true believers in those politics. As a result, an attempt to shift toward the ideological center would be challenging and costly for the NRA.
Further, the NRA in recent years has effectively lost all ties to Democrats in Congress; once a source of leverage over its GOP allies, the NRA’s support for a relatively small number of pro-gun Democrats has dried up and the Democratic Party itself is increasingly united in support of gun control.
And none of this is to mention that the NRA’s aforementioned legal battles leave it distracted and organizationally weak.
As a result, the NRA’s fate is in many ways linked not just to that of the GOP broadly but to the party’s Trump wing specifically. Trump and his allies could, of course, prevail over those who want to take the party in a different direction. If so — and assuming it survives its lawsuit in New York — the NRA will be in a much stronger position to rebound when its legal troubles are resolved.
Regardless, it’s clear that the NRA’s future will be shaped not just in a courtroom or in the halls of Congress in the coming weeks, but also by who wins the ongoing struggle for the future of the Republican Party. Even if efforts to pass new gun regulations in the wake of the Boulder and Atlanta shootings fail in the short term, the politics of gun control might be changing in the longer term.
Matthew Lacombe is the author of “Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force.“