At 5:30 a.m. one morning in early 2013, soon after a gunman in Sandy Hook killed 26 people, National Rifle Association lobbyist Abra Belke was woken up by a phone call. She was shocked to hear a U.S. senator on the line angrily shouting, “Why would you do this?” The lawmaker was Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from a red state, saying she had just been put in an impossible situation by the NRA.
The subject of the call was an ad produced by the NRA’s public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, which had targeted President Obama’s daughters: “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator asked. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? … He’s just another elitist hypocrite.” NRA HQ had released the spot without telling their lobbyists about it first.
The ad, and the personal nature of it, did not go over well even among the NRA’s allies on Capitol Hill. The NRA had gone after the president’s children, and members of Congress were furious. The next person to call was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Every NRA lobbyist got calls of this type in the days that followed.
The ad was another example of the tension between the NRA’s messaging strategists at Ackerman McQueen, and the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the NRA’s lobbying arm. While the lobbyists were on the Hill trying to make deals, Ack-Mac and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre were cooking up this divisive advertisement. Good for the base, bad for legislation.
The divide between the lobbyists’ relative pragmatism and the all-or-nothing strategy of the enthusiastic PR firm highlighted the tension between competing factions of the gun group. Ultimately, in the dark wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook, the NRA jettisoned the idea of compromising through the legislative process and chose to double down on gun rights as identity politics.
Soon after Belke received the call, the NRA would take part in negotiations over the universal background check bill brought by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey — only to withdraw at the last minute and mobilize supporters against the legislation. In the aftermath, the group marched into the conservative culture war. It shifted further to the right, embracing pro-gun Republicans entirely and abandoning even the pretense of outreach to Democrats. From Sandy Hook onward, it became increasingly difficult for Democrats to work with the NRA, and vice versa.
Manchin-Toomey was a turning point for the NRA. The month after that bill stalled in the Senate, NRA President Jim Porter indicated that debates over gun rules in America were not just “a battle over gun rights” but instead a broader “culture war.” LaPierre viewed this as a transition from leading a gun group to leading “a freedom organization.” This signaled the NRA’s transformation from a single-issue organization that focused on gun issues into a group that promoted an ideological identity.
Eight years later, the group has seemingly reached a nadir, brought down by internal dissent, bankruptcy and scandal. Yet the NRA has survived. To study the NRA is to see its remarkable resilience — a resilience that was on full display when, in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the group tanked the last real chance at gun-control legislation and made a hard-right turn.
The national trauma of Newtown had led to a new push to consider gun laws. There had been some talk about reinstating the assault weapons ban, an idea that a White House task force led by then-Vice President Joe Biden recommended. But this was a nonstarter in the Senate: When it eventually came up for a vote, it was defeated 40-60, with more than a dozen Democrats crossing the aisle to join with every Republican (save one) to bury the proposal.
Manchin (D-W.Va.) learned about the massacre at Sandy Hook the day he returned from a hunting trip, and decided he had to do something about it. Nothing in politics had ever impacted him emotionally the way that shooting did. He was well-liked by the NRA’s lobbyists, who, even when they did not agree with him, respected that he was taking a political risk on gun legislation. West Virginia, after all, is a state where 58.5 percent of households own firearms.
Nationally, the concept of universal background checks was extremely popular. In early 2013, more than 90 percent of Americans were in support of universal background checks. Polling also suggested that the idea was popular among NRA members, 74 percent of whom supported the idea.
Background checks would not have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook. The shooter had used firearms obtained legally by his mother. A prohibition on assault weapons and limitations on high-capacity magazines were political nonstarters, thanks in part to NRA opposition. But when it came to ideas that could reduce gun violence in America, expanding background checks was Manchin’s only viable legislative option.
On Valentine’s Day 2013, Manchin was on a flight with Toomey (R-Pa.), and their neighboring-state camaraderie sparked an amicable conversation. The next month, Manchin and Toomey ran into each other at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, where Manchin pitched the idea of collaborating on gun legislation.
“Why wouldn’t I be the lead on this?” Toomey asked his staff. The Republican had been deeply moved by his meetings with victims of gun violence. He had actually voted for an expansion of background checks when he was in the House. A fiscal hawk from a moderate state, Toomey had reason to nod to suburban voters in Pennsylvania by championing middle-of-the-road gun legislation. And he had the political capital to do it: Toomey, like Manchin, had an A rating from the NRA. By Easter — March 31 — Manchin and Toomey were working on the text of a gun reform bill.
The next two and a half weeks were a blur of activity as staffers from both offices came together to iron out the details over sandwiches from Taylor Gourmet, a D.C. chain founded by two Pennsylvanians. Momentum was on their side: Legislative aides were working close to 24 hours a day, stopping home only to shower and take short naps.
As early as Manchin’s first legislative drafts, the National Rifle Association had been involved in the negotiations. In the flurry of exchanges, the NRA had suggested insertions that would be good for gun owners. Many of these lived on as the process unfolded.
The view of the NRA’s top lobbyists at the time was that background checks were not the hill to die on. In the wake of a national tragedy like Sandy Hook, there was room to score a few wins for the gun community while allowing the gun control folks to let off a little steam with a victory of their own. At first, a release valve in the form of Manchin-Toomey was fine with them.
After all, background check legislation in the decade prior had the NRA’s support. LaPierre had personally supported expanded background checks after Columbine: “We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere, for anyone,” he had told Congress in 1999.
The NRA continually took part in negotiations, taking meetings and providing legal assistance for the wording of the bill. Head lobbyist Chris Cox was personally involved. One of the NRA’s key advantages in the gun debate is that the issue can be highly technical; offices are always coming to them for help getting the details right. The NRA made several recommendations for the crafting of the background check language — and did not hint to Republicans or Democrats involved in the process that they were resistant to it.
Yet the lobbyists were noncommittal. They were managing risk, trying to get a good bill in case it had the support to pass, but also not committing to backing it. All throughout, they were just a moment from retreat. At no point did they make any pledges to support the legislation.
Toomey aides were in charge of bringing hesitant Republicans on board. They had a list of 10 Republicans they thought were persuadable. Those on the list had one common ask: “The NRA has to give us cover to support this,” GOP Senate offices would say. Staffers involved in crafting the legislation sensed that the NRA was open to supporting the bill, and Toomey’s office felt the group would eventually support it. As the bill neared its unveiling, there was serious optimism that it would come together and ultimately pass.
The Manchin-Toomey bill, unveiled on April 10 and formally known as the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, was not a particularly ambitious piece of gun legislation. The bill expanded background checks — already mandatory for most purchases of firearms — to cover all sales at gun shows or by online vendors. However, this would not apply to sales among family or friends. The bill also proposed improving the existing background check system and establishing a national commission on mass violence.
The NRA’s top lobbyists, including Cox, had managed to shape a significant portion of the bill. The draft had been negotiated and written with the purpose of bringing on gun rights activists, and it included so-called Second Amendment enhancements— essentially deal sweeteners that these activists had wanted for years. These included allowing interstate handgun sales, shortening the amount of time a seller would have to wait for a response from the background check system, protecting hunters who legally transport firearms to the state they are hunting in and explicitly prohibiting a national gun registry.
The lobbying on all sides was intense. A number of gun show owners, normally faithful NRA allies, were encouraged by the sweeteners in the bill and urged its passage. Many other Second Amendment activists were staunchly opposed. An NRA lobbyist at the time could expect to receive a new email arguing for or against the bill every 10 seconds for 12 hours of the day.
That the NRA was a party to the negotiations came as unwelcome news to Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who later co-sponsored the bill, said he wasn’t interested in negotiating with the group. “I am not here to work for the NRA. I am here to cut their throat!” he said in one particularly intense exchange.
Schumer didn’t have to worry long. The NRA was facing immense pressure from its right flank to withdraw. As early as March 23, POLITICO had reported on rumors that the NRA and Manchin were engaged in secret talks over background checks. Two days later, the National Association of Gun Rights sent out a bulletin to its members: “I’ve warned you from the beginning that our gravest danger was an inside-Washington driven deal,” wrote NAGR executive Dudley Brown. He added that the deal was a “Manchin-NRA compromise bill.” The Gun Owners of America followed suit a week later, urging its members to contact the NRA to voice their opinion. Neither of these groups had even a tenth of the NRA’s membership, or its political power, but they threatened to chip away at the group’s reputation. Whatever NRA HQ’s position on the bill may have been, it was fast getting outflanked by ideologues on the right.
The NRA had three options: It could support the background check bill it had helped craft; it could mobilize its membership against the legislation; or it could stay neutral and not “score” the vote in its closely watched annual legislative scorecard. As the vote neared and hopes for the NRA’s support became dimmer, Toomey’s office reached out to the group’s lobbyists: “Can you just not score it?”
But the pressure from the right had helped seal the deal. In early April, the NRA stopped negotiating with Manchin’s office. Belke, who had been supportive of the legislation, was told one morning to tell all offices she had been in contact with that the NRA opposed the bill. A week before the vote, NRA-ILA announced that “expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools.”
Then, two days before the Senate took up the bill, the NRA declared that it would score the vote, signaling that lawmakers who supported Manchin-Toomey would face political blowback. Even the proposal’s architects knew it was over. Manchin called NRA lobbyist James Baker. “Jim, why’d you change?” Manchin asked. He never got a straight answer.
Some make the mistake of thinking that the NRA’s power comes from political contributions or money from the gun industry. After ILA lobbyists had made up their mind to oppose the bill, they flashed their real power: their mailing lists and ability to mobilize. Marshaled to action, thousands of ardent Second Amendment supporters flooded Capitol Hill phone lines and crowded email inboxes. Terrified lawmakers, concerned about their reelection bids, fell into line. Of the 10 Republicans on Toomey’s list, ultimately, he was able to convince only three. Meanwhile, four Democratic senators from purple states joined Republicans to oppose the bill.
Because of Senate rules, the bill needed a supermajority of 60 votes to be considered for passage. With Biden presiding over the chamber, Manchin-Toomey failed on April 17, 2013: 54 votes for to 46 opposed. In the Senate gallery, watching in dismay, were shooting victims as well as relatives of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Despite Democrats holding the Senate, despite the NRA once having been supportive of expanded background checks, despite the murders and the tragedy, despite the vast majority of Americans being supportive of the idea, the compromise bill failed.
Little loyalty was displayed by the NRA after Manchin-Toomey failed. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who stuck with the NRA’s final edict, was not rewarded for his no vote. In 2014 the NRA endorsed Pryor’s opponent, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Manchin, too, was subsequently targeted by the NRA, which spent $100,000 in ads criticizing him. The NRA also revoked Manchin’s A rating — when he ran for reelection, they gave him a D. Toomey’s A rating was also revoked: he received a C the next time he was graded. The knife in the back leaves a bitter feeling in those Senate offices to this day.
Cox viewed his maneuvers during this period as part of how politics is done. From his point of view, he engaged with Congress because it was his job, and he withdrew because the NRA decided that expanded background checks were unacceptable. “You can negotiate in good faith, and at the end of those negotiations not be in agreement. When elected officials want to craft legislation that would impact the NRA, it was my job to have that conversation,” Cox said. “They wanted an agreement, but there never was one.”
Two weeks after the collapse of Manchin-Toomey, Belke walked into the ILA office above the Capitol Hill bar Bullfeathers and put in her resignation. In the years that followed, the things that she was most concerned about came to pass: The NRA became a driver of the conservative culture war; was driven further to the right by its interest in fundraising from its base; and alienated gun owners who care only about the right to safely and responsibly bear arms.
Meanwhile, she’s unable to work on firearms issues — after speaking out publicly against Wayne LaPierre, she was told by an industry insider that the NRA had sought to blacklist her from the industry. She says that she still supports the NRA’s stated mission of helping people use firearms safely and responsibly, but she adds, “That’s not Wayne’s mission.”
The National Rifle Association has traditionally claimed a membership of between 5 and 6 million, up from 2.9 million in 1993. When LaPierre was forced to testify under oath as to his organization’s actual membership earlier this year, he said that it was around 4.9 million, with 2.5 million life members. This puts the NRA’s current membership at less than where it was five years ago. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The NRA has managed to attract millions more to its culture war. Millions have taken the NRA’s firearms courses, and thus identify as members in surveys. And still more Americans who are not technically dues-paying members of the organization associate with it because of its interpretation of the Second Amendment.
It is hard to argue that the NRA, as an organization focused on advocacy, is unsuccessful. After a psychopath murdered children at Sandy Hook Elementary, the group was ruthlessly effective in torpedoing gun reform legislation. Firearms can now be conceal-carried in all fifty states. In 1986, when LaPierre was a mere lobbyist at the NRA, that number was just nine. The NRA remains a powerhouse lobbying force on Capitol Hill and a force to be reckoned with in state capitals.
Despite the scandals that came to surround LaPierre and the NRA, the group and its ideological allies outspent gun control groups like Everytown in the 2020 cycle, reversing the trend from 2018. It is corruption and financial mismanagement that have threatened the NRA’s stability. But to its opponents’ chagrin, the whole situation could be turned around with dedicated management. And its core strength — the passion of millions of members — will remain there to be mobilized if and when it does turn around.