As the political fallout from the tragic shooting in Parkland, Fla., continues, progressives and anti-gun activists have directed their ire increasingly at the National Rifle Association (NRA). One argument that has been circulating is that the NRA is a special-interest group that effectively buys off members of Congress with campaign contributions, inducing them to vote against the interests of their constituents for the sake of their own reelections.
This is an inaccurate picture of the substantial power that the NRA wields in the political process. That is not to say that the gun-owners’ group is above reproach. Rather, it elides several important distinctions between how the NRA operates and most other special interests do.
The NRA is not like the stereotypical interest group that we think of influencing the political process. These groups — think of the big banks, the hospitals, the homebuilders, etc. — have business before the government. Literally. The taxing and regulatory authority of the government is so vast that Uncle Sam can make or break pretty much any industry it likes. So these economic factions mobilize to protect themselves from harms or to extend their benefits.
Among such economic-based interest groups, direct contributions are but one portion of the effort they exert. Political scientists have found that the relationship between campaign contributions and policy outcomes is decidedly indirect. It’s not money but the provision of information that is the primary means by which such interest groups influence politics. Members of Congress and regulatory bodies are required to make all sorts of complex decisions every day, and they often lack the expertise to know the economic, social, and, yes, political effects of those choices. This is where interest groups play a large role. No doubt, campaign contributions help them build relationships with politicians, who are grateful for the support, but the strict campaign-finance limits prevent substantial assistance, at least on a direct basis.
Another way interest groups build relationships is through the revolving door, not only for elected officials but also for bureaucrats and legislative staffers — who, after leaving the Hill, go off to work for the interests they once regulated.
The NRA is looking to defend certain principles that its members are committed to, often passionately.
None of this captures the power of the NRA very well. The bulk of its revenue is generated through contributions and member dues, but the NRA’s patrons, by and large, do not have an economic incentive to participate in the political process via the gun-rights group. That makes them different from most professional associations that lobby the government for the sake of their members’ pocketbooks. The NRA is different from the massive American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), too, because the AARP looks after the economic interests of seniors. NRA members, by and large, do not have economic stakes on the line. Instead, the stakes are ideological: The NRA is looking to defend certain principles that its members are committed to, often passionately.
Politicians who come from communities with relatively high gun ownership are going to be hard-pressed to go against the NRA, knowing full well that its members are easily mobilized at the ballot box — especially come primary time, when turnout is very low.
Its political power is accordingly different as well. Interest groups with relatively small numbers and high economic stakes spend the money necessary to win the “inside” game, as described above. But thanks to its large, ideologically committed membership, the NRA has the strength to play an outside game — exerting pressure via the electoral process. Politicians who come from communities with relatively high gun ownership, particularly from those in the South and Midwest, where Americans are most likely to own guns, are going to be hard-pressed to go against the NRA, knowing full well that its members are easily mobilized at the ballot box — especially come primary time, when turnout is very low. Precious few interest groups are powerful enough to do this.
All of this makes the NRA sui generis in the universe of interest groups — a large membership distributed across key electoral districts motivated primarily by ideological, not economic concerns and exercising power through the ballot box. It is hard to think of another group quite like this.
None of this is to say that the NRA necessarily represents the public interest. One can argue, as the anti-gun activists might, that the NRA is a faction in the Madisonian sense of the word:
a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
On the other hand, gun-rights activists and NRA members would argue that they are protecting the general welfare. That is a much larger debate that is outside the purview of this essay.
My point, rather, is to emphasize that the source of the NRA’s power is vastly different from that of pretty much every other interest group that tries to influence the policy process in Washington, D.C. It’s simply wrong to characterize the NRA as some sort of “shady” interest group working the back hallways of power. The NRA is much too powerful to rely primarily on such tactics.