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What's Behind The NRA's Political Clout


Look it up, and you'll see that the National Rifle Association donated $724,000 to congressional candidates in 2016. That's pin money in politics. But the NRA also paid for ads and other outside spending that amounted to over $54 million. How's the NRA been able to defeat gun control legislation after every mass shooting from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Orlando? Robert Draper is a writer at large at The New York Times Magazine. He's looked into that question. He's in our studio.

Mr. Draper, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT DRAPER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Now, $54 million is a lot of money. But the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens will make that in two seasons. And Hillary Clinton raised more than $1 billion to run for president. Why does the NRA have such clout?

DRAPER: Well, I think that people are using the wrong metric when they look at campaign contributions. It's not just a straightforward matter of the NRA buying off politicians, as it were. Chiefly, they succeed because they have a very, very active membership that is easily agitated by the notion, the possibility of liberals taking away their guns. And after a mass shooting, the membership tends to spike at the NRA for precisely this reason. And they are mobilized by the organization to contact politicians and make clear their preferences that there be no further legislation curtailing their gun rights.

SIMON: Now follow up, if you can. Explain that psychology. A terrible mass shooting occurs, and people are afraid their guns will be taken away...

DRAPER: That's right.

SIMON: ...In reaction?

DRAPER: Yeah, yeah. They basically - and they are given some - I hesitate to say motivation - but some impetus for feeling that way because oftentimes, chiefly Democrats, will propose legislation in the wake of one of these tragedies that would not remediate that situation. In other words - so for example, in the case of the Newtown massacre in 2012, Democrats led the charge to try to pass legislation for universal background checks. That would not have stopped that particular shooter who used firearms that were purchased legally by his mother. So what that then gives rise to is the sentiment that - aha - these liberals are not being sincere in actually wanting to stop a tragedy like this. They're simply using that tragedy as a means of curtailing our gun rights.

SIMON: Polls show the American public divided on this issue. It's gone back and forth over the years. A Pew poll this year asked Americans what was more important, to control gun ownership or to protect gun rights. Almost down the middle - 51 percent said control guns was more important; 49 percent said control gun rights. What has the NRA done that proponents of gun laws have not been able to do?

DRAPER: Well, again, what they've understood is that there's not a whole lot of incentive on the part, particularly of Republicans, to pass gun legislation. And it's - those Republicans, more than anything else, don't want to hear from angry constituents who are flooding their offices with telephone calls yelling and screaming at them. So once again, the NRA is able to mobilize their members in a way that others are not. I should say, by the way, Scott, that those polls are a little bit tricky because they're in an electoral vacuum. I mean, some people will say theoretically, sure...

SIMON: Yeah.

DRAPER: ...We'd like universal background checks. But when the rubber hits the road and there actually begins to be an argument about them, then a lot of people - either - well, once again, the NRA members - they're a lot more vocal than those who are more progressive-minded.

SIMON: Based on your experience talking to people, fair-minded reporting, are politicians devoted to the NRA or scared by them?

DRAPER: Scared by them, yeah. Republicans I've talked to - and they will never go on the record saying this - will confide in me that the NRA is one organization they have never wanted to buck - again, because the NRA has a lot of money, but more than anything else, they are able to get their supporters to make life miserable for these members. We're seeing now, in the wake of this tragedy in Las Vegas, that there has been some talk about banning bump stocks, the device that's able to...

SIMON: Right.

DRAPER: ...That's able to convert a semiautomatic to an automatic. And this is one that, once again, I think is going to have very little locomotion to it.

SIMON: Robert Draper, thanks very much for being with us.

DRAPER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.