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Revered or reviled, NRA's power is at the polls

Andrew Wolfson, @adwolfson 4:11 p.m. EDT May 15, 2016
-04_042514_NRAConvention.JPG_20140426.jpg (Photo: The Indy Star) Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the National Rifle Association, which is holding its annual meeting in Louisville in the coming days. Coming in Part 2, the NRA's power in Kentucky.

Testifying before Congress in 1934 about a bill to virtually ban machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, National Rifle Association President Karl Frederick was asked about carrying firearms for self-defense.

"I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns," said the former Olympic gold medal sharpshooter. "I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."

Fast-forward to December 2015 when 14 people were killed in a shooting blamed on terrorists in San Bernardino, Calif., and Democrats rushed to pass a measure to deny guns to anyone on the no-fly terrorist watch list.

The NRA responded with a tweet to its nearly 5 million members. "Call your senators NOW and urge them to vote NO on any and all #gun control proposals."

The measure was defeated in the Senate.

Ambrose Burnside, first president of NRA, founded the Ambrose Burnside, first president of NRA, founded the organization in 1871 to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." (Photo: Library of Congress) Founded in 1871 by two former Union Army officers dismayed that so many Northern soldiers had been scarcely able to use their weapons, the organization that will hold its annual meeting in Louisville from May 19 to 22 has dramatically transformed itself, especially over the past four decades.

Once dedicated to promoting marksmanship and safety - it didn't have a lobbying arm until 1975 - the NRA, which declined to respond to questions for this story, is now viewed as arguably the most powerful interest group in Washington, D.C.

With an operating budget of more than $300 million, it spent $28 million supporting and opposing candidates in the last federal election cycle and $3.6 million on 35 lobbyirests last year.

But 151 organizations spent more on lobbying - the American Medical Association alone spent seven times as much. And the NRA's enemies and champions alike say its power derives more from its grass-roots support than from money.

"Money doesn't vote - people vote," said Richard Feldman, who worked for the NRA in the 1980s and is the author of "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist."

RELATED | Going to the NRA convention? Here's what you should know

Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America," said: "So many people misunderstand the NRA. They think they buy politicians. The power of the NRA comes from its ability to sway voters on Election Day."

George Stephanopoulos, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton, once acknowledged that the group's members "call their congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time."

In 2014 alone, the NRA spent $61 million on "member communications," according to its tax report, including to spread the word about the "report cards" its Political Victory Fund compiles in every state and federal race. (Kentucky's congressional delegation all collected As or A+s, except for Democrat John Yarmuth, who got an F.)

Feldman also said another key to the NRA's clout is that it has wisely shaped the fight as a symbolic battle over freedom and liberty, after conducting tests more than 30 years ago that showed gun owners associated them with those terms.

"It's more than just guns," he said.

The result: In the three years since a heavily armed gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people - 20 of them children - Congress has passed a single piece of gun control legislation - a bill to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms that could bypass security checkpoints and be snuck on airplanes.

The NRA helped defeat a bill to extend a ban on assault weapons. It blocked a bill that would have extended background checks to gun shows despite the fact that even 79 percent of Republican voters supported it, according to a Pew Research Center poll last summer. The NRA even slipped into the language of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, restricting what doctors can ask patients about firearms in their homes.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Wayne LaPierre, NRA leader The NRA has been even more effective in statehouses across the U.S., pushing through "stand-your-ground laws" in 23 states - including Kentucky - that removed the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and legislation in 42 states to allow residents to carry concealed firearms with a permit. The other eight allow that without a permit.

But the NRA's biggest victory came at the Supreme Court in 2008, when by a 5-4 vote the court struck down a District of Columbia law that had banned handguns from the home.

The decision marked the first time the high court ever found that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms in self-defense. And it marked the culmination of decades of work by the NRA to redefine the amendment as a personal right - rather than one intended to maintain a "well-regulated militia," as the preface to the amendment says.

Seventeen years earlier, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a rock-ribbed conservative appointed by President Richard Nixon, called the NRA's re-interpretation of the amendment "the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen."

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger told PBS NewsHour's Former Chief Justice Warren Burger told PBS NewsHour's Charlayne Hunter-Gault in December 1991 that turning the Second Amendment into a personal right was "the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen." (Photo: PBS NewsHour) In an interview on PBS' "NewsHour," Burger described himself as a "gun man" who had hunted since he was a boy. But he said the NRA had "misled the American people, and I regret to say they have had far too much influence on the Congress than as a citizen I would like to see."

It wasn't always so.

Asked in 1934 if a proposed high tax on machine guns interfered with citizens' right to keep and bear arms, then-NRA President Frederick replied, "I have not given it any study from that point of view." And asked if the NRA was opposed to regulation of firearms, he answered, "Not at all. I have advocated it."

He described how the NRA had drafted a model state gun law requiring a two-day waiting period and the licensing of owners.

But Frederick did note that firearm laws seemed to affect the "honest man rather than the crook." Eight years earlier, the NRA had begun publishing "Armed Citizen" accounts of how law-abiding gun owners used their Second Amendment rights to defend themselves, their homes and their families. Those are run to this day in the NRA's American Rifleman magazine.

Still as recently as 1963 - after Lee Harvey Oswald used an Italian military surplus rifle he ordered for $19.95 to kill President John F. Kennedy - NRA leader Franklin Orth testified before Congress that "we do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing" into a bill restrictions on mail-order sales of shotguns and rifles, "the instrument which killed the president of the United States."

Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a surplus Italian rifle Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a surplus Italian rifle he bought through the mail for $19.95 and used to killed President John F. Kennedy. (Photo: Dallas Police Department/AP) Even when Congress, in the wake of riots and other assassinations, passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which, among other things, allowed only federal licensed dealers and collectors to ship guns across state lines, Orth told American Rifleman that "the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with."

The NRA we know today didn't come into being until 1977, at an event known as the "Revolt at Cincinnati."

With the NRA's establishment leaders threatening to move the group's national headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado Springs, Colo., suggesting a retreat from politics, a thousand opponents wearing hunter's orange caps pulled a coup at its annual meeting that year in Cincinnati, according to accounts in The Washington Post and other publications.

The NRA's executive vice president Franklin Orth said The NRA's executive vice president Franklin Orth said in 1963 that no "sane American" could object to restricting the mail order sales of firearms like the one used to kill President John F. Kennedy. (Photo: AP) They dislodged the old leaders and installed their own, Harlon Carter, a tough-talking former head of the U.S. Border Patrol who as a teenager was convicted of murder for fatally shooting a 15-year-old boy in a quarrel. His conviction was later set aside because the jury wasn't allowed to consider self-defense.

"We can win it on a simple concept - no compromise," he wrote to NRA members. "No gun legislation."

Charlton Heston, the actor and then-NRA president, expressed the same sentiment more publicly at its 129th convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2000 when he famously warned that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would try to smear firearms owners as "gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, bloodthirsty maniacs who stand in the way of a safer America."

Holding a replica flintlock long rifle over his head, he said: "I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: 'From my cold, dead hands!' "

The NRA funded legal research and law review articles supporting the individual right to bear arms, and its charitable foundation gave $1 million to endow a professorship at George Mason law school dedicated to the study of the Second Amendment.

Wayne LaPierre, who succeeded Carter as the NRA's top employee, may have been even more strident.

In a fundraising letter, he told members that an assault weapons ban passed in 1994 "gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us."

Former President George H.W. Bush resigned his NRA membership in disgust. But LaPierre didn't back down, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "those words ... are in fact ... a pretty close description of what's happening in the real world."

And at the NRA's convention in Philadelphia in 2002, he said: "We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It's black and white, all or nothing, you're with us or against us."

He has remained unbending in response to recent mass shootings, saying the answer was more guns, not fewer. A week after the Newtown school shootings, LaPierre called for school officials to immediately come up with a plan to place armed security in every school in America.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.

The NRA claimed an influx of 100,000 new members in the weeks after Newtown, and its tax report shows income from dues rose to $176 million, from $108 million, over the next year, a 63 percent increase.

The NRA's message is also winning - and not just in Congress and state legislatures.

In December 2014, for the first time in more than two decades, a higher percentage of Americans (52 percent) said the rights of gun owners were more important than gun control (46 percent), according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Although those numbers reversed last year, when a slight majority cited gun control as more vital, a Gallup poll last October found 58 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the NRA.

The poll was taken a week after a gunman shot and killed nine people, then himself, at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.

Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189 or awolfson@courier-journal.com.

How the NRA spends its money

NRA expenses, 2014

Member communications: $61.4 million

Safety and training programs: $27.6 million

Printing and publications: $26.6 million

Legislative programs: $35.2 million

Compensation of officers: $3.2 million

Other salaries: $39.8 million

Advertising and promotion: $57 million

Professional fundraising expenses: $6.9 million

Legal, IT, other: $87.9 million

Total: $345.6 million

Source: 2014 tax report

NRA report card: Kentucky's congressional delegation

Mitch McConnell: A+

Rand Paul: AQ

Brett Guthrie: A

John Yarmuth: F

Thomas Massie: A

Hal Rogers: A+

Andy Barr: A

Ed Whitfield : A

Note: All from 2014, except for Paul's, which is based on a questionnaire he filled out when he ran in 2010.

6 facts about the NRA

The NRA was founded by two Union Civil War veterans, including an ex-New York Times reporter, who felt that the war dragged on because more urban Northerners could not shoot as well as rural Southerners.

The NRA didn't have a lobbying wing until 1975 and didn't endorse a president until 1980, when it gave the nod to Ronald Reagan.

Eight U.S. presidents have been lifetime NRA members, but John F. Kennedy was the lone Democrat. Richard Nixon disavowed his membership in 1969 and George H.W. Bush resigned in 1995 after an NRA fundraising letter called federal agents ''jack-booted government thugs."

The NRA's headquarters, a glass tower in Fairfax, Va., includes a 15-position shooting range in the basement.

In the 2014 election cycle, the NRA spent 445 times as much ($10.8 million) supporting Republicans than supporting Democrats ($24,262), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The NRA in 2014 paid CEO and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre $985,885 and chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox $891,012, according to its tax return.

NRA meeting: What to know

WHERE: Kentucky Exposition Center, 937 Phillips Lane

WHEN: May 19-22. Exhibition halls at the Kentucky Exposition Center will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Ticket and event information: www.nraam.org

Other than the free "NRA Country Jam presented by Colt" featuring Brett Eldredge on Friday night on the Belvedere, events and exhibits are only open to NRA members and their families, but non-members can purchase memberships at the door for $25. Uniformed military, law enforcement personnel and organized youth groups will be admitted free.

Some events - such as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's address on Friday - require tickets, while others require a fee, including the Toby Keith concert Saturday night at the KFC Yum! Center and the "Wall of Guns," in the center lobby, in which the holders of winning tickets can pick from 70 makes and models.

Exhibitors - 750 of them - range from Advanced Armament Corp. (the leading manufacturer of U.S. made silencers) to YETI Coolers ("built for going toe-to-toe with hungry grizzlies").

Lawfully carried firearms will be permitted in the exposition center and other venues but temporarily prohibited in any area under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Secret Service - such as Freedom Hall during Trump's address to the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.

Foreign journalists are not welcome; the NRA cites "resource constraints." But everybody else is. The NRA says bring the whole family.