In the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, the National Rifle Association is once again a heated topic of debate among many Americans.
Many have been critical of the Fairfax, Va.-based gun rights group, saying they proliferate guns and gun violence in the United States, while many others praise the group for protecting a constitutional right to bear arms.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Some say the amendment is outdated and reflective of a time when America was much more rural, and Americans were more reliant on guns for hunting and self-protection. They also point out that when the amendment was written, most guns were single-shot muskets and pistols, not semi-automatic, assault-style rifles.
Other Americans view the amendment as establishing a sacrosanct right. They recoil at most attempts to control access to guns.
But there have been laws enacted to regulate certain guns. For example, in 1994, Congress passed the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which was signed by former President Bill Clinton. The bill banned certain kinds of semi-automatic firearms, including the kind used in Parkland. It expired in 2004, and its effect on gun violence is still debated.
In 1986, Congress passed the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, which made it much more difficult for Americans to obtain fully automatic weapons, often referred to as machine guns.
While there are restrictions on certain guns and who can get guns, Americans own a lot of of them.
Ascertaining the total number of guns in the United States is difficult, but according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, there were between 270 and 310 million. An update to that study in 2017 did not mention the total number of guns.
About 30 percent of adults said they own at least one, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report. Of those, 66 percent have multiple guns, and 73 percent said they could not imagine not owning a gun.
To put membership in the NRA in perspective, the group says it has five million members, which is only 19 percent of gun owners, according to Pew.
Its membership makes the NRA a political force, as well as a resource, for gun owners seeking training and information about gun safety.
According to the NRA’s website, it was founded in 1871 by Union Army veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate, who had been “dismayed” by the lack of marksmanship among Union troops. In an editorial written by Church, he said the NRA would “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”
Gun training and practice continue to be the focus of NRA activities, but in 1975 it formed a political lobbying group, the Institute for Legislative Action. In 1977, it formed a political action committee to funnel campaign funds to politicians they view as strong supporters of the Second Amendment.
According to the NRA, the ILA acts “when restrictive ‘gun control’ legislation is proposed at the local, state or federal level. NRA members and supporters are alerted and respond with individual letters, faxes, emails and calls to their elected representatives to make their views known.”
Opensecrets.org, a campaign finance watchdog, said the NRA spent $5.2 million in lobbying in 2017. Among those issues the group is supporting are removing restrictions on gun accessories called suppressors, which lessen the noise gun makes. They are also advocating that states recognize other states’ concealed carry permits. Concealed carry means a gun owner can carry their gun in public in a way that others can’t see.
In 2015, the NRA took in $336.7 million, according to The Hill. Of that, $165.7 million came from membership dues. The group also takes money from gun manufacturers.
NRA members are politically active and more likely to be conservative. They tend to vote, adding to the group’s influence.
While the NRA is certainly an influential force in U.S. politics, just how effective it is remains debatable.
For example, the 2017 Pew study found that 44 percent of U.S. adults felt the NRA has too much influence over gun laws, with 40 percent saying it had “the right amount.” Only 15 percent thought the NRA has too little influence.
Among NRA members, 63 percent said the group has the right amount of influence, nine percent said it had too much influence, with 28 percent saying it has little, to no, influence, according to Pew.
In a microcosm of how Americans feel about the NRA, President Donald Trump said during on an on-air meeting with senators last Wednesday that he was a “fan” of the NRA.
“But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18,” the president said. During the same meeting, he also appeared open to confiscating guns from people with certain mental illnesses.
“I like taking guns away early,” Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process, second.”
The comments seemed to be welcomed by Democrats, while many on the right were critical of the remarks. Trump later walked back the comments, and it remains to be seen what leaders will do to prevent another tragedy like Parkland.