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How the NRA has shaped American politics

President Joe Biden has railed against the NRA, while former President Donald Trump has embraced the organization.
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Posted at 10:27 AM, May 17, 2024

The U.S. has a long history of gun use, and the topic has become increasingly political.

At a National Rifle Association Outdoor Show held in the swing state of Pennsylvania, presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former President Donald Trump said he's the best friend of American gun owners.

"During my four years nothing happened," Trump said at the February rally. "And there was great pressure on me having to do with guns. We did nothing. We didn't yield."

The crowd cheered heartily at his remarks.

"Your Second Amendment will always be safe with me as your president," Trump said.

Guns on display at a Texas gun show

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Trump and most other Republicans who believe that guns make law-abiding people safe also believe staying on the good side of the National Rifle Association is good politics.

"We do live in the world that the NRA has created," said Louisiana Tech historian Andrew McKevitt, who wrote the book "Gun Country," which examines the power firearms and the NRA both have on America.

"Since the late 1970s, they have allied themselves with the rise of the new right," McKevitt said. "They've integrated themselves into the Republican Party."

Founded in 1871, the NRA operated for decades as a promoter of gun safety and recreational shooting. But at its 1977 convention, it shifted directions to gun rights becoming part of a conservative movement amid culture wars in politics.

"They have managed to succeed in liberalizing the gun laws of about 40 states in the United States and pushing presidents to nominate what is now a clear majority on the Supreme Court of justices who are pro-gun," said UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler.

The NRA counted 6 million members in 2018. Legal filings reveal that number is down to 4.3 million in 2023, as is revenue.

The election finance watchdog group OpenSecrets.org says the NRA is spending far less to support federal candidates, about $29 million in 2020, which is 46% less than four years earlier.

Scandal has tarnished the gun lobbying group as well. A New York jury found that former NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre squandered millions of donor dollars on personal perks like vacations, private jets and expensive clothes. LaPierre has since resigned from the organization.

Wayne LaPierre, left, former CEO of the National Rifle Association

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Only one U.S. House of Representatives Democrat gets a positive rating from the NRA. Republicans overwhelmingly toe the line on the group's legislative priorities.

The Democrats prefer to go to rhetorical war against the gun lobby. During the State of the Union address, President Joe Biden declared: "We must beat the NRA again. I'm demanding a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines."

On May 18, 2018, eight students and two teachers were fatally shot by a 17-year-old student at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Days after the tragedy, the then-incoming president of the NRA, Oliver North, rejected any notion of gun control efforts, saying the disease is not the Second Amendment and the solution was tougher security at schools.

Democrats called for tougher background checks. The Republican-dominated Texas legislature's response was money for districts to harden security. The political response played out as it typically does in America.

Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter Kimberly Vaughan died in the Texas shooting, is challenging an NRA-backed Republican in an uphill bid for Congress.

"Now that pain has turned into purpose and spite," Hart said. " I love that they're falling apart at the seams, that's great for them."

Donald Trump is again scheduled to appear at the NRA's national convention. He's the keynote speaker on May 18 in Dallas.