Politics

The NRA isn’t what it used to be. It may not need to be.

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One of the most useful polls I have covered during my time at The Washington Post was an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released in 2015. It determined that the two most positively viewed political organizations in the United States were Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association.

There was a catch, of course: Neither was viewed positively by a majority of the country. Each was viewed very positively by one political party and negatively by the other. They were poles of polarization, in other words: One hated by the left and loved by the right, and the other flipped.

That’s come to mind quite a bit this week as each organization is again at the center of national politics. And while the NRA is not as potent a force in American politics as it was in 2015 — years of scandal and investigation have exacted a toll — its cause appears to be as robust as ever.

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The organizations have a weird synchronicity, a statement that will irritate supporters of each. But both the NRA and Planned Parenthood center their work on defending what they present as unassailable rights — presentations that Americans generally either agree or disagree with in alignment with their partisan identities.

That didn’t used to be the case. As with abortion, the biennial General Social Survey finds that Americans were largely in agreement on the question of whether permits should be required to own a gun until the early 1990s. After that, views diverged. In 1991, there was a 2.9-point gap between Democrats (and Democrat-leaning independents) and Republicans (and leaning independents) on support for requiring a police permit.

Twenty years later, Democrats and leaners were 35-points more likely to support the idea.

What happened over those 20 years? Protecting access to guns became a part of partisan cultural identities, both for and against. And that’s in part because the NRA spent a lot of money to ensure that it did. From 1992 to 2016, the NRA was generally spending at least $1 million per cycle.

Until 2012 or so, at least some portion of that money went to Democrats, though not as much as went to Republicans. By 2014 — after a Democratic push for new gun restrictions following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — the group was giving less than $100,000 to Democratic candidates each cycle.

The presidency of Democrat Barack Obama was a golden age for the group. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre could be relied upon to give an unhinged speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, warning about the society-ending effects of the always-looming end to gun ownership. This was effective: Casting Obama as always being a hair’s breadth from limiting gun ownership (despite the repeated failures of Obama and his party to do any such thing) served LaPierre and the NRA well.

But then Obama was replaced by Republican Donald Trump, who was obviously not going to take anyone’s guns. Then there was the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That made the organization a renewed target of broad opposition. There was an internal feud with the organization’s new president, Oliver North, and, soon after, a bold lawsuit from New York’s attorney general. It’s all complicated, but the effect was to hobble the organization.

Even with the NRA largely sidelined in the 2018 and 2020 elections, its cause held strong. On the first graph above, you can see that Republicans were substantially less likely to support a gun permit requirement in 2021 than they were in 2016. The NRA’s position is embedded in conservative politics, and the NRA doesn’t appear to need to be there to reinforce it.

If we measure both support for gun permits and the broad availability of abortion, you can see how the partisan positions coalesced over the past 20 years. The percent of people saying that they both support gun permits and oppose availability of abortion for any reason has plunged. It’s about as large a group now as those opposing both — in line with the expected Republican position. The expected Democratic position — pro-permit, pro-broadly available abortion — is now the most common.

In 1991, only 18 percent of respondents said they opposed required permits. Now, a third of Americans do — a majority of whom also oppose the availability of abortion for any reason.

It’s possible that the shooting this week in Uvalde, Tex., will prompt the first significant restrictions on gun ownership in years. But it’s perhaps more possible that it won’t — a function of opposition to such restrictions that’s embedded in Republican politics thanks in part to years of NRA prodding.


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