The Citizens United decision has fundamentally transformed the way the NRA operates politically. The NRA can now tap into unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to engage in direct political advocacy – running TV advertising calling for the defeat of individual candidates. The NRA gets to play like a Super PAC. But unlike groups that sprang up to support Mitt Romney (Restore Our Future) or Barack Obama (Priorities USA), the NRA does not have to disclose the names or contributions of its donors.
That's because the rifle association is incorporated under the same provision of the tax code that shelters Karl Rove's "dark money" operation, Crossroads GPS. "The NRA is a 501(c)(4) organization," it advertises to potential donors, "which enables it to be involved in political processes including lobbying and political campaign activities." Such groups must be primarily engaged in "social welfare" activities. While that's a source of legal concern for groups like Rove's, the NRA has so many tentacles – from shooting clubs to youth education programs to magazines – that it's perfectly positioned to benefit from the dark-money boom.
The NRA's traditional, regulated PAC is as strong as ever. It spent $16.6 million in national political races in 2012. But it was joined by a newly empowered NRAILA, which kicked in an additional $7.4 million from undisclosed sources, making the NRA the eighth-largest dark-money group in the country. In a startling collusion among right-wing powerhouses, NRA-ILA's efforts were actually funded by a $600,000 grant from Rove's GPS group.
The NRA is not simply working for the industry on the national stage. In 1987, only 10 states had "right-to-carry" laws permitting citizens to pack heat. By 2010, the NRA celebrated its efforts in converting the 40th state. A former NRA lobbyist once crowed to The Wall Street Journal: "The gun industry should send me a basket of fruit – our efforts have created a new market."
Yet for many gun owners, carrying a gun in public has been a source of anxiety. It's one thing to keep a weapon in the nightstand to guard against intruders. It's quite another to take a gun out in public. That's where the notorious "stand your ground" law comes in. The brainchild of former NRA president Marion Hammer, stand-your-ground makes it legal for a person who is attacked in public to use lethal force as a first resort. The first such measure was passed in 2005 in Florida – championed by an ambitious state legislator named Marco Rubio and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
At the time, LaPierre said Florida was just the beginning – the "first step of a multistate strategy." To keep its efforts below the radar, the National Rifle Association partnered with the American Legislative Exchange Council to steer similar laws through other state legislatures. Since 2005, the NRA, through ALEC, has taken stand-your-ground nationwide, helping to pass laws in 24 other states. At least 10 of those laws are all but identical to the language of the Florida legislation.
Conceal-carry and stand-your-ground laws do nothing to suppress crime, but they do boost gun sales. "This now expands the scope of where people are going to be carrying guns," says Diaz. "And you're more or less insulated from liability if you feel like you have to kill somebody." In Florida, Trayvon Martin's home state, "justifiable homicides" tripled between 2005 and 2011. A new study out of Texas A&M found that by "lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force," these stand-your-ground laws "induce more of it" – driving an eight percent increase in murders and manslaughters.
These numbers are profoundly disturbing to most Americans. But to LaPierre and his allies in the gun industry they add up to something else: opportunity. "We live in the most dangerous of times," LaPierre warned the gathered activists at the NRA's 2012 convention in St. Louis. America has been infiltrated by terrorists and Mexican drug criminals, he said, who "are lurking and plotting to murder us." LaPierre railed against "the Obama crowd" for "conspiring with the world's dirty-handed, thug governments" and telling "lies" about the "coming realities" – catastrophic events that he insisted could "freeze our transportation systems, black out our cities, shut down our distribution of fuel and food" and bring an "unprecedented breakdown of social order." LaPierre told his flock, "Americans are facing the reality that they're on their own."
But like any good preacher, LaPierre did not simply paint a lurid portrait of hell – he also laid out a path to salvation: "We are the millions of Americans who have found faith in the Second Amendment," he said. "People are anticipating dangerous times and are responding in the only sensible, logical way possible – they're buying guns!"
With a twinkle in his eye, LaPierre added that "America's women are leading the way! . . . The more women who buy and own and shoot guns, the safer and better off we'll all be!"
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