There’s an appreciable irony astir among Americans who maintain the belief that we should “drain the swamp” in D.C. of special interests, who also ignore — or even support — a gun lobby whose largess funds more than half of our state representatives. You can’t treat special interests as anathema while ignoring the highly unusual influence the NRA exerts over our elected officials without sounding, at the very least, confused in a very deep and fundamental sense.
Every few months the script repeats. Another school shooting happens somewhere in America. Amid cries for change and the same recycled headlines, Congress offers little besides sympathy card condolences, requisite thoughts and prayers. Sometimes, when public outrage hits a fever pitch, we’re mollified with empty promises. Our leaders highlight mental illness as a prerequisite for our gun problem, even though they pass bills making it easier for people with mental illness to buy guns. They debate an increase to wait periods, a ban on bump stocks, possibly raising the gun purchasing age. In the end they do nothing and things eventually blow over, business as usual. This cycle has become another American tradition. Ever wonder why?
The National Rifle Association, which began as a hobbyist group, is considered one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the U.S., but it’s hardly the most well-heeled. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Assn. of Realtors, the National Retail Federation and about a dozen others spend far more money on Capitol Hill. Only five percent of the gun-rights advocacy group’s funding comes from the firearms industry, with the majority of its financial support originating from small donations. Its annual expenses regularly outpace its revenues.
The NRA is powerful because it provides a function for the GOP similar to what labor unions once gave the Democratic party. Even better than deep coffers, it counts an unusually large member base — more than five million members — and wields an even larger sphere of influence outside of those ranks, the nearly 10 million in the U.S. who own a collective total of nearly 300 million guns. President Trump wasn’t wrong when he said during a Feb. 28 televised meeting with lawmakers that Republicans are “afraid of the NRA.” Aside from being able to deliver cash to candidates, it can deliver millions of votes from Americans who take their voting cues from the organization, the same way that many voters who weren’t necessarily union members used to cast ballots to elect pro-union candidates, which is what gave the Democratic Party control of Congress between 1931 and 1995.
So, it’s little wonder why our leaders have repeatedly cowed to the gun lobby’s demands and have refused to budge in any foreseeable way regarding legislation that could anger the private influence to whom they are so deeply beholden. This is the apotheosis of the swamp; just imagine the same litany of excuses being used to prevent legislative change every time a domestic terrorist attack occurred, or a major health outbreak, or a financial crisis. The greatest barriers to change we have are the representatives we’ve elected to enact the laws we want.
Unfortunately for them, it’s become clear that America’s gun debate has been different in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting than it was after Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown, Columbine or Virginia Tech. The victims have grown up in a time where everyone’s one click away from becoming an activist, and they’ve been emboldened by the recent #MeToo movement, which proved that social media outrage can engender change. The protests currently being held around the country underscore a change in American attitudes regarding gun control, with 70 percent of U.S. adults now wanting stricter firearms laws, the highest percent in 25 years, according to a February Politico / Morning Consult poll.
Perhaps this is also why another sector has stepped in to take the lead in creating change as government continues to dig in its heels. American corporations are cutting ties with the NRA at a fast clip: insurance giant MetLife recently ended its NRA member discount program, Delta and United Airlines announced they were ending their contracts with the association, and car rental companies Avis Budget Group, Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise and National followed suit by slashing their NRA member discount plans. Even Walmart has joined the fray, raising the age limit on gun purchases to 21.
These entities are hardly civic rights leaders. Many of them support conservative causes and have been emboldened by Trump’s pro-business agenda. The private sector is ditching any association with the NRA because they recognize that boycotts have become a regular part of America’s response narrative, and conversely, companies that take stances on social or political issues stand to initiate a conversation with customers by offering them the kinds of changes they want.
Americans have seen the gun debate play out enough times to know how the sausage gets made in Washington. They recognize the production process behind the machine, see the hands pulling the strings of legislative theater. The private sector’s response in the wake of the Parkland shooting has made it clear that America’s gun debate has shifted, providing a counterbalance to the inaction in Washington that has hindered any progress on this issue for years. The 200 million-plus Americans who don’t own guns can convince Congress to follow the free market’s lead. The people have spoken. Companies are listening. Will our leaders do the same?