NRA: Nature, Structure, And External Factors Affecting Success
The National Rifle Association is an organization founded in 1871, ostensibly for the purposes of encouraging activities related to gun ownership (including firearms safety and marksmanship training). It currently has a membership of approximately five million individuals, with an annual budget of approximately 231 million dollars. However, to suggest that the NRA is spending its vast annual budget purely on sponsoring shooting contests and gun safety classes -- according to the original stated purpose of the organization -- is to vastly underrate what this social organization is actually engaged in. The NRA's role began to shift in the latter part of the twentieth century, as issues related to gun control began to enter political discussion in the United States. At this point, by the 1960s and the 1970s, the NRA began to shift into a political lobbying organization, around the same time that its size dictated a substantial shift in organizational structure. This structural change, which holds true to the present day, was described by former gun rights lobbyist and NRA employee Richard Feldman (2011) in his memoir Ricochet, describing his employment and work as a lobbyist:
[By the late 1960s] the NRA had evolved a structure similar to that of other large membership organizations. A seventy-five-member board of directors -- a third of which was elected at each annual convention -- shaped the association's overall policy goals and advised on allocation of finances through specialized committees. The board also elected a president for a one-year term, which could be extended by a year, and it annually appointed the executive vice president, who shaped policy and oversaw daily operations. (39)
As a result, from 1991 to the present day, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association -- which is, in this organizational structure outlined by Feldman, the most important officer in terms of establishing the organization's actual policy and day-to-day actions -- has been Wayne LaPierre, who rose to the position of executive vice president after having been (like Feldman) a lobbyist himself for the organization. In consequence, the National Rifle Association is best understood as a political lobbying organization with a large paying membership, and the other activities closer to its original stated mission are largely a footnote now to its main activities. As a result of this basic structure and operation, the two external factors that can most affect the success of the National Rifle Association are the enaction of gun control laws (which is what the organization lobbies to prevent) and the maintenance of its large membership (whose membership dues supply the annual budget to fund the organization's lobbying activities). The reasons for this should be fairly obvious. Lobbying organizations exist to influence the political process, but they do not actually control it. It remains a possibility that state or federal legislative bodies could enact laws over the NRA's opposition. Moreover, lobbying requires a large amount of funding, as its purpose is to turn money into political influence. Thus, if the membership of the National Rifle Association were to drop drastically, its purchasing power in the political arena would be vastly diminished. What is most fascinating to observe, however, is the interplay between these two key factors. As Melzer (2009) has demonstrated, the NRA's membership numbers reflect the perception of the legislative threat to restrict gun rights -- when attempts to restrict guns are not being pushed by lawmakers or gun control advocates, the number of paying members in the organization declines sharply (85).
The NRA: Stakeholders and Their Influence on Financial Performance
The three most salient stakeholders of the NRA are the organization's membership (currently about three million, and the equivalent to capital market shareholders in a corporation), the politicians with whom it has successfully allied itself (largely conservative members of the Republican Party, and the equivalent to a corporation's primary customers), and the actual leadership and other employees of the NRA like Wayne LaPierre (the organizational stakeholders). The interaction of these three stakeholder groups is, of course, highly symbiotic. The organizational stakeholders set the tone and actions of the group to attract a larger membership, but the ultimate target audience for the NRA is not the public at large but those lawmakers who could potentially change gun rights. However, it is worth noting that the NRA has in the past attempted to appeal to the public at large by showcasing celebrity spokespersons in a public relations maneuver -- the most famous example being the deceased Hollywood film star Charlton Heston.
As the NRA's actual paying membership comprises the primary stakeholders of the organization, it is useful to observe ways in which they can influence the overall financial performance of the NRA. The chief way is, of course, to decline to renew membership. But there are a number of reasons why this could happen: membership decline could be (first) a response to the lack of urgent threats against gun rights, it could decline because (secondly) the immediate short-term goals such as handgun ownership rights have been permanently established and no longer require defense, or it could decline (thirdly) because of dissatisfaction with organizational direction. Feldman (2011) notes that the current structure of the NRA was a result of a 1977 membership "coup d'etat" from within that redirected the organization's primary focus to lobbying (45). Winkler (2011) has noted that the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller established an interpretation of the Second Amendment guaranteeing handgun ownership, to as a result it may have been a game changer for NRA strategy:
By erecting a constitutional barrier to a broad gun ban, the Heller ruling may have flattened the gun lobby's "slippery slope," making it harder for the NRA to use fear tactics to motivate gun owners to give their time, money, and votes in opposing sensible gun laws and the candidates who support those laws. (295)
A fourth way whereby members could vote with their feet is through sensitivity to bad publicity for the organization -- following the 2012 elementary school shootings at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre became a widely reviled media figure, and he could have been ousted by the NRA's membership at the next annual convention. Finally, because the paying membership does ostensibly guide the organization itself, it could at any time vote to redirect the purpose of the organization -- while this is unlikely at the present moment, it does always exist as a possibility, and has obviously happened in the organization's past.
The NRA: Controversial Social Responsibility Concern
One controversial social responsibility concern regarding the NRA has been its tendency to arge almost any gun control issue on the side of greater availability, regardless of the popularity with the general public. As Spitzer (2004) notes, this has been particularly noteworthy in the "assult weapons ban" which restricts access to "semiautomatic military-style rifles that can hold up to 30 bullets" (101). The polls referenced by Spitzer (2004) indicate that not only did 79% of the public support such a ban, even 69% of gun owners favored the ban as well (101). Yet, as Spitzer (2004) notes, the NRA opposed the ban, and despite its traditional alliance with the Republican Party, the NRA refused to endorse George H.W. Bush in 1992 because of his support for the assault weapons ban (82). And again according to Spitzer (2004), the NRA followed this in 1996 by refusing to endorse Bob Dole for President because he had not repealed the assault weapons ban (90).
It is interesting to attempt the thought experiment of how a leader in the NRA's membership (its chief stakeholder group) could get the NRA to reverse its traditional stance and support an assault weapons ban. This would require identifying NRA membership who largely come from the handgun community -- both owners and manufacturers -- who are relatively secure in their goals after the 2008 Supreme Court decision. These would presumably fall in the 69% of gun owners identified by Spitzer who support the assault weapons ban, and if a substantial number could be persuaded that it would be a good public relations move, then enough of a core membership could be mobilized at the annual convention to put pressure on the executive vice-president to endorse an assault weapons ban for the overall benefit of those who hunt with less militarized weapons. If the executive vice president stands his ground, then a membership "coup d'etat" of the sort described by Feldman would happen, and new leadership supporting an assault weapons ban would be elected. What would be necessary, however, is a public act that could be used as a rallying point for such a membership action. A high-profile and senseless killing that was conducted with precisely these sorts of military weapons -- along the lines of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut -- could be used to stigmatize the assault weapons and suggest that they bring other forms of gun ownership into disrepute.