‘Even more insidious than the NRA’: US gun lobby group gains in power
The National Shooting Sports Foundation has been aggressively pushing gun manufacturers’ interests, and is starting to eclipse its bigger rival
A business trade group representing 10,000 gunmakers, dealers and other firearm firms is emerging as a rising force in the US and starting to eclipse – in some respects – the might of the powerful but scandal-plagued National Rifle Association.
Meet the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s conservative and aggressive lobbying group. Its range of activities are broad but always geared to zealously and single-mindedly preserving and extending the power of the gun industry.
It has been lobbying Congress to pass bills that would block financial institutions from using environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in making investment and loan decisions to protect gun companies’ bottom lines.
Meanwhile, gun manufacturers are relying on this same group to mount legal challenges to several state laws that limit the gun industry’s highly prized and unique protection from contentious liability laws enacted by Congress in 2005.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, the NSSF used its lobbying muscle to help prod his administration to move regulation of gun exports from the state department to the commerce department, a shift that seems to have yielded financial dividends for gun exporters due to the department’s pro-business approach.
In the past few years, as the 5-million member NRA has been battered by financial woes, internal rifts and legal threats from the New York attorney general and private interests, the NSSF has expanded its legal and lobbying spending to fight gun-control efforts nationwide, while boosting gun rights and industry sales.
“The NSSF functions as the gun industry’s voice, with a singular focus on expanding the market for all types of firearms, including assault weapons and short-barreled rifles, and is eclipsing the NRA’s lobbying power on Capitol Hill,” said Kristen Rand, a lawyer with the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy and research group.
The rising clout of the NSSF is underscored in part by the group’s increased spending on lobbying, which has outpaced the NRA’s lobbying spending in recent years. For instance, in 2020 and 2021, the NSSF reported spending $4.6m and $5m respectively on federal lobbying. By contrast, the NRA spent $2.2m and $4.9m.
Further, the NSSF’s legal muscle has expanded in the last year since the NSSF tapped the former solicitor general Paul Clement as an outside lawyer to fight laws in seven states that limit the protections from lawsuits that were granted by Congress.
Clement has also mounted legal challenges for the NSSF against new gun-control measures in New York, New Jersey and other states that have been enacted in the wake of a supreme court decision last year against a New York law limiting concealed-carry permits to those people who can show a “proper purpose” for having such weapons outside their homes.
The NSSF’s board of governors reflects the group’s financial interests and clout: the board includes top executives from major arms companies such as Daniel Defense and Smith & Wesson, which made the AR-15 military-style assault rifles used in the Uvalde and Highland Park mass shootings.
Little wonder the NSSF, founded in 1961 and once best known for hosting an annual and lavish “Shot” [Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show] in Las Vegas, has become a more active and visible player waging legal and lobbying battles to boost arms company interests, say experts and gun control advocates.
“The NSSF burrows in on every nook and cranny of gun regulation as it works to ensure that the gun industry’s financial interests are consistently and zealously represented – on even the most arcane issues. For NSSF, gun violence prevention legislation is literally bad for business,” said Rand.
The NSSF’s growing influence is reflected in part by the group’s revenues, which soared to over $51m in fiscal year 2022, versus $36m in fiscal year 2016.
The revenue hikes at NSSF have come as the group’s membership has grown in the past few years to 10,000 from 8.000, said NSSF general counsel and top lobbyist Larry Keane. Keane said the NSSF has four full-time lobbyists and is recruiting a fifth for its Washington office, which opened in 2012.
Overall, the American gun industry has mushroomed in recent years.
Gun sales surged during the pandemic, as almost 60m guns were bought by Americans between 2020 and 2022, according to the Trace, a nonpartisan news outfit that reports on gun violence. In 2008, about 8m guns were sold, but in 2016 gun sales had almost doubled to 16m.
Gun experts say the NSSF has become a more prominent player in battles to benefit the gun industry’s bottom line.
“The NSSF has stepped up its political activities in at least three ways: much more political lobbying and related activities in DC and elsewhere; filing lawsuits against gun laws around the country in the courts, especially after the supreme court’s 2022 Bruen decision; and promoting gun manufacturing and sales data, which is increasingly being cited in court cases by gun-rights litigants,” said Robert Spitzer, the author of several books on gun issues and an emeritus professor at Suny Cortland in New York.
Spitzer added: “Unfortunately, their data is problematic, because they don’t fully reveal their methodology, and they have a vested interest in inflating their numbers to support the argument that the more guns and gun accessories in circulation, the more futile gun laws are.”
NRA veterans also say the NSSF has become a more robust tool for gun interests. “Given the dumpster fires at the NRA, industry has increased its engagement at NSSF,” a former NRA board member told the Guardian.
The NSSF’s key battles now range widely, from the halls of Congress to many states nationwide where legislative and legal fights have intensified.
Keane said the NSSF has been working with a multi-industry coalition which includes fossil-fuel firms, dubbed the Fair Access to Banking Coalition, to push for Republican-sponsored bills in the House and the Senate that would curb financial companies from using ESG guidelines in making investment and loan decisions.
Keane said that the NSSF’s push for these bills stems from gun-industry complaints about “discrimination” by financial institutions that have adopted ESG guidelines, which have led to decisions by banks and other financial firms being made for “political and not business” reasons.
But Nick Suplina, a senior vice-president for law and policy with Everytown for Gun Safety said the “NSSF is riding the coattails of the fossil fuel industry in passing these bills, and made common cause, because doing what is best for society might hurt their bottom line.”
He added: “As more businesses and banks recognized that customers expected them to do their part in addressing widespread social harms, big coal and the gun industry have embraced a culture-war veneer to mask their profit motive: declare war on woke corporations.
“As a result, the NSSF has pressed legislation that abandons free-market principles and restricts companies’ freedom to set reasonable risk standards for doing business with the gun industry, while fossil-fuel companies try to prohibit consideration of environmental impact.”
With Democrats in control of the Senate, the bill’s passage is not likely, but given that Republicans control the House, it could pass there.
On another battlefront, Keane said that NSSF members are troubled about several state laws that “gut” the controversial and unique liability protections Congress granted the gun industry in 2005, and “open up the industry to new litigation”.
To date, seven states including California, New York and New Jersey have passed laws that permit some litigation against gun companies, thereby undercutting the sweeping liability protections that Congress gave the industry.
The NSSF has tapped Clement, the former solicitor general. to fight these state laws in court, because, Keane said, they “open up industry” to lawsuits which Congress blocked in 2005.
As the NSSF has become a more robust force in pushing gun-industry priorities, gun-control advocates see similarities and differences with the NRA.
“Make no mistake: the NSSF is even more insidious than the NRA with its ever-expanding lobbying operation and abnormally cozy relationship with its regulator,” said Adzi Vokhiwa, the director of federal affairs at Giffords, the gun control advocacy group. “The NSSF hides behind its public identity as a simple trade association, while aggressively working to undermine any and all attempts to slow this nation’s devastating gun violence crisis.”
Vokhiwa, for instance, noted that the NSSF ran a television ad blitz, its first ever, to scuttle the Biden administration’s first nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, David Chipman, by stressing his role as a Giffords adviser after 25 years of serving as an ATF agent.
“From leading dangerous smear campaigns against ATF director nominees who publicly promise to better regulate the gun industry, and bullying members of Congress to vote against even the most reasonable pieces of legislation regulating guns, the NSSF continues to value gun-industry profits more than the American people’s right to live in safe communities,” Vokhiwa said.
Other gun-control advocates say the NSSF, like the NRA, has often exploited fears of gun owners and pushed conspiracy theories about “big government” efforts to undermine the second amendment, in order to rally opposition to gun-control measures.
“The firearms industry was peddling anti-government conspiracies long before Trump came along talking about the “deep state”,” said Suplina. “That includes claiming that even modest proposals for gun-violence prevention, like requiring background checks on every gun sale, are part of a sinister government plot to disarm all Americans.
“The industry seems to hope that paranoia will drive more people to purchase their products and has in fact recognized that, after mass shootings, fear of new laws drive gun sales.”