The NRA's board is stocked with industry brass. Pete Brownell, president of Brownells – an Internet arms superstore that features "ultrahigh-capacity magazines" – campaigned for his seat touting the importance for the NRA to have "directors who intimately understand and work in leadership positions within the firearms industry." Another board seat belongs to Ronnie Barrett, CEO of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, whose company produces .50-caliber sniper rifles capable of piercing armor from nearly a mile away. Barrett's firm also sells scope-mounted ballistics computers that enable clueless civilians to hit targets like they were special-forces snipers. The ammunitions side of the industry finds a voice in board member Stephen Hornady, whose company peddles armor-piercing bullets and trades on the slogan "Accurate. Deadly. Dependable."
These NRA directors are representative of a firearms sector that knows lethality sells. "The industry has changed," says Tom Diaz, former Democratic counsel to the House subcommittee on crime, a longtime gun-violence policy analyst and author of a forthcoming book on the industry, The Last Gun. "In terms of what sells and what is marketed most successfully, we're now talking about guns that are derived directly from military design."
Of the top 15 gun manufacturers, 11 now manufacture assault weapons, many of them variants of the AR-15 – derived from a military rifle designed to kill enemy soldiers at close-to-medium range with little marksmanship. The industry loves these "modern sporting rifles" because they can be tricked out with expensive scopes, loaders, lights and lasers. "Most of the money is in accessories," says Feldman.
As one gun rep recently boasted to an industry publication: "The AR platform is like Legos for grown men." And a 2012 report from Bushmaster's parent company boasted that the industry's embrace of these guns has led to "increased long-term growth in the long-gun market while attracting a younger generation of shooters." The campaign certainly seems to be working. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster. Twenty-five-year-old James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was in many ways the dream customer of the surging industry. He bought an AR-15 .233-caliberSmith & Wesson assault rifle – a category the company's CEO bragged was "extremely hot" – tricked it out with a 100-round ultrahigh-capacity magazine and then purchased thousands of rounds from BulkAmmo.com, spending nearly $15,000 on his greater arsenal.
The changes in the industry are underscored by dispatches from industry websites and publications, like this one from Shooting Wire, in which the NRA is an advertiser: "The net of all the numbers is that if you're a company with a strong line of high-capacity pistols and AR-style rifles, you're doing land-office business. If you're heavily dependent on hunting, you are hurting."
The NRA insists in its publications that it is "not a trade organization" and that it is "not affiliated with any firearm or ammunition manufacturers or with any businesses that deal in guns and ammunition." That is a lie. NRA's corporate patrons include 22 firearms manufacturers, 12 of which are makers of assault weapons with household names like Beretta and Ruger, according to a 2011 analysis by the Violence Policy Center. The report, drawn from the NRA's own disclosures, also identified gifts from dozens of firms that profit from high-capacity magazines, including Browning and Remington. Donors from the industry and other dark reaches of the corporate world – including Xe, the new name of the mercenary group Blackwater – had funneled up to $52 million to the NRA in recent years.
More disturbing, the NRA receives funds directly from the sales of arms and ammunition. The "Round-Up" program, launched by arms retailer Midway USA, encourages customers to increase their purchases to the nearest dollar and sends the extra coin to the association. Midway customers alone have contributed nearly $8 million in this way to support NRA's lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action.
In 2011, Ruger set out to be the first gun company to "build and ship a million guns in one year." So it ginned up a promotion that would give a dollar to the NRA for every weapon sold between the 2011 and 2012 NRA annual meetings. The company broke its own sales goal, sending $1,254,000 to the NRA-ILA. Glock – whose pistols have been used in at least six mass murders since 1991, including the Virginia Tech and Gabby Giffords shootings – has been shipping an offer for discounted NRA memberships with its handguns. In 2007, the NRA thanked Glock for helping it recruit 10,000 new members.
Top corporate patrons are treated like royalty. Those whose giving to the NRA reaches $1 million or more are inaugurated into an elite NRA society called the "Golden Ring of Freedom" in a ceremony where they're presented with a silk-lined golden blazer with a hand-embroidered crest. Industry honchos seen in "the million-dollar jacket" include the heads of Ruger, Beretta, Midway and Cabela's, an outfitter that sells 12 models of semiautomatic rifles.
Much like elite funders of a major political party, these Golden Ringers enjoy top access to decision-makers at the NRA. Their interests, not the interest of the $35-a-year member, rule the roost. "They've got this base of true believers that they mail their magazines out to," says policy analyst Diaz. "But the NRA is really about serving this elite."
In more than three decades of service to the NRA, Wayne LaPierre has done more than any other man alive to make America safe for crazed gunmen to build warlike arsenals and unleash terror on innocents at movie theaters and elementary schools. In the 1980s, he helped craft legislation to roll back gun control passed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations. And since the late 1990s, twice he has destroyed political deals that might have made it hugely difficult for accused killers like Holmes and Lanza to get their hands on their weapons.
A predecessor once characterized the NRA as being "one of the world's great religions," and 64-year-old LaPierre is a strange fit to be its pope. LaPierre did not come from gun culture. He wasn't a hunter, a marksman, a military man or a Second Amendment activist. "He's not a true believer," says NRA biographer Osha Gray Davidson. "He's the first NRA chief you can say that about."
According to NRA legend, LaPierre is actually a menace with a gun. NRA's PR team once thought it would be sexy to film LaPierre at a firing range. "It was a nightmare," an NRA staffer told Davidson. LaPierre was aiming downrange for the camera when an engineer called for a sound check. To answer the man, LaPierre swung around, but he failed to lower his rifle, aiming it directly at the engineer – before someone took the gun away from LaPierre. The incident, terrifying at the time, became a dark joke at NRA headquarters. Staffers behind on their projects were threatened that they'd have to "go hunting with Wayne." (The NRA's press office did not reply to Rolling Stone inquiries.)
Between 1978, when LaPierre was hired as a lobbyist, and 1991, when he took over as CEO, the NRA had been on a historic roll. In those early days, LaPierre served at the knee of a revolutionary NRA executive named Harlon Carter, who transformed an old-time shooters club into a political powerhouse – an "NRA so strong," Carter boasted, "that no politician in America mindful of his political career would want to challenge [our] goals." The NRA started grading politicians on guns – a process Bob Dole kvetched was "a litmus test every five minutes" – rewarding allies with campaign cash and subjecting foes to the backlash of millions of rabid, single-issue gun-owning voters. In 1980, the NRA made its first-ever presidential endorsement with Ronald Reagan, and by 1986 had the Gipper's signature on legislation, overseen by LaPierre, that would usher in a new era of unregulated gun shows.
By the late 1990s, however, the once mighty NRA was reeling on LaPierre's watch: It had suffered stinging legislative defeats – the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban a year later. Despite being credited by President Clinton for the GOP takeover in the House in 1994, the association was riven by factionalism and money troubles that had many writing the association's obituary.
Instead, LaPierre orchestrated a stunning turnaround, rebuilding the NRA's power, this time as the voice of the industry. In so doing, he destroyed a historic gun-control effort.
Cities around the country, emboldened by the success of the legal action that had humbled Big Tobacco, had begun suing gun manufacturers, claiming that the industry was liable for the social costs of gun violence. These suits argued that firearms manufacturers had negligently marketed guns to criminals and profited from illicit gun sales by turning a blind eye to their distribution networks. The Clinton White House, in an initiative driven by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, announced its own class-action, suit over gun violence in the nation's housing projects.
"The liability fight was an existential threat to the firearms industry," says Feldman. "They thought that if those lawsuits continued, let alone were successful, it would drain the industry." In the industry's moment of peril, LaPierre saw an opportunity to expand the NRA's power: The NRA would get out in front of gunmakers and, through its membership, lead their fight. Charlton Heston, then NRA's president, brought a stark message to the industry's biggest trade show in 1999: "For a century, we have thrived independently," Heston said. "But now your fight has become our fight." Under LaPierre, the NRA went to work at the state level, securing bills that would ban localities from suing gun manufacturers. It also began to draw up a national campaign to get Congress to immunize gun manufacturers from liability for their deadly products.
Smith & Wesson, at the time America's biggest handgun manufacturer, was hesitant to bank on the NRA's legislative moonshot, deciding that the best way to limit the damage would be to negotiate a settlement with Cuomo. "We have to save the business," said CEO Ed Schultz." So we're talking, instead of hiding our head in the sand like the National Rifle Association."
In exchange for immunity from product liability lawsuits, Smith & Wesson agreed to make safer guns and to clean up distribution networks. The measures included changes to the guns themselves, such as internal locks, triggers that couldn't be operated by kids and making new guns incompatible with old, high-capacity magazines whose manufacture was now illegal thanks to the Assault Weapons Ban. Smith & Wesson also promised to ship only to dealers who ran background checks at every sale, including at gun shows, and who refused to sell grandfathered assault rifles. With Smith & Wesson on board, Cuomo was confident that other manufacturers would fall in line.
But LaPierre would tolerate no defections. Determined to kill off any comprehensive gun-control agreement, he decided to hurt Smith & Wesson like the NRA had punished so many wayward politicians, by riling up the membership and organizing a consumer boycott that left the company reeling. Cuomo's negotiations with the industry soon collapsed.
So too did the effort to pass new gun restrictions in the aftermath of Columbine, underscoring the NRA's resurgent power. Three guns used in the Columbine massacre had been picked up at a gun show, where, thanks to a loophole in the Brady Bill, the purchases weren't subject to background checks. The Senate quickly passed an amendment to close the gun-show loophole, with Al Gore casting the decisive vote. But the NRA made its stand in the House. A month later, when the amendment came up for a vote, it got stomped, 193 to 235. Democrats, mindful of the punishment of 1994, contributed 49 nay votes.
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