The White House and the National Rifle Association are careening toward an all-out battle, with President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday of an expansive new agenda to crack down on gun violence.
One of the most interesting aspects of all is how an association for sportsmen became the prime defenders of assault weaponry.
In its early days, the National Rifle Association was a grassroots social club that prided itself on independence from corporate influence.
While that is still part of the organization's core function, today less than half of the NRA's revenues come from program fees and membership dues.
The bulk of the group's money now comes in the form of contributions, grants, royalty income, and advertising, much of it originating from gun industry sources.
Since 2005, t he gun industry and its corporate allies have given between $20 million and $52.6 million to it through the NRA Ring of Freedom sponsor program. Donors include firearm companies like Midway USA, Springfield Armory Inc, Pierce Bullet Seal Target Systems, and Beretta USA Corporation. Other supporters from the gun industry include Cabala's, Sturm Rugar & Co, and Smith & Wesson.
The NRA also made $20.9 million — about 10 percent of its revenue — from selling advertising to industry companies marketing products in its many publications in 2010, according to the IRS Form 990.
Additionally, some companies donate portions of sales directly to the NRA. Crimson Trace, which makes laser sights, donates 10 percent of each sale to the NRA. Taurus buys an NRA membership for everyone who buys one of their guns. Sturm Rugar gives $1 to the NRA for each gun sold, which amounts to millions. The NRA's revenues are intrinsically linked to the success of the gun business.
The NRA Foundation also collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry, which it then gives to local-level organizations for training and equipment purchases.
This shift is key to understanding why a coalition of hunters, collectors and firearm enthusiasts takes the heat for incidents of gun violence, like the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, rather than the companies that manufacture and market assault weapons.
The chief trade association for gun manufacturers is the National Shooting Sports Federation , which is, incidentally, located in Newtown, Conn. But the NRA takes front and center after each and every shooting.
"Today's NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. "While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the 'freedom' of individual gun owners, it's actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory."
There are two reasons for the industry support for the NRA. The first is that the organization develops and maintains a market for their products. The second, less direct function, is to absorb criticism in the event of PR crises for the gun industry.
It's possible that without the NRA, people would be protesting outside of Glock, SIG Sauer and Freedom Group — the makers of the guns used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — and dragging the CEOs in front of cameras and Congress. That is certainly what happened to tobacco executives when their products continued killing people.
Notoriously, tobacco executives even attempted to form their own version of the NRA in 1993, seeing the inherent benefit to the industry that such an effort would have. Philip Morris bankrolled the National Smokers Alliance, a group that never quite had the groundswell of support the industry wanted.
Notably, the tide has shifted slightly in the wake of Sandy Hook, with Cerberus Capital Management's decision to sell Freedom Group, the company that makes the Bushmaster rifle.
But if history is any indication, the NRA will be front and center of the new gun control debate, while gun manufacturers remain safely out of the spotlight.
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