Mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, just 10 days apart, are stirring a now-familiar debate over guns in the United States.
Many Americans are blaming the National Rifle Association (NRA) for thwarting stronger gun laws that might have prevented these two recent tragedies and many others.
Amid the outcry – and despite the proximity in time and location to the Texas shooting – the NRA is proceeding with its plans to hold its annual convention in Houston, Texas this Friday to Sunday, with featured speakers including former US president Donald Trump.
We take a look at what the NRA is, how it came to be, and the power it wields over national gun policies in the US.
What is the NRA?
The NRA began life as an organisation to advance rifle marksmanship and has today transformed into the most prominent gun rights lobbying group in the US.
On its website, it describes itself as America’s “longest-standing civil rights organisation”.
“Together with our more than five million members, we’re proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment” it says – with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution detailing the right of the people to bear arms.
How did it come to be?
Founded in 1871 by two Civil War veterans from northern states who had witnessed the typical soldier’s inability to handle guns, the NRA’s more than 150-year history spans three distinct eras.
At first the group was mainly concerned with marksmanship. It later played a relatively constructive role regarding safety-minded gun ownership restrictions, before turning into a rigid politicised force.
The NRA played a role in fledgling political efforts to formulate state and national gun policy in the 1920s and 1930s, after Prohibition-era liquor trafficking stoked gang warfare.
It even helped shape the National Firearms Act of 1934, with two of its leaders testifying before Congress at length regarding this landmark legislation. They supported, if grudgingly, its main provisions, such as restricting gangster weapons, which included a national registry for machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.
Instruction in the correct method of rifle shooting is given by the National Rifle Association around the year 1940. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
But they opposed handgun registration, which was stripped out of the nation’s first significant national gun law.
Decades later, in the legislative battle held in the aftermath of President John F Kennedy’s assassination and amid rising concerns about crime, the NRA opposed another national registry provision that would have applied to all firearms. Congress ultimately stripped it from the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Throughout this period, however, the NRA remained primarily focused on marksmanship, hunting and other recreational activities, although it did continue to voice opposition to new gun laws, especially to its membership.
So what changed?
By the mid-1970s, a dissident group within the NRA believed that the organisation was losing the national debate over guns by being too defensive and not political enough.
The dispute erupted at the NRA’s 1977 annual convention, where the dissidents deposed the old guard.
From this point forward, the NRA became ever more political and strident in its defence of so-called “gun rights,” which it increasingly defined as nearly absolute under the Second Amendment.
One sign of how much the NRA has changed is that the Second Amendment right to bear arms never came up in the 166 pages of congressional testimony regarding the 1934 gun law. Today, the organisation treats those words as its mantra, constantly citing them.
And until the mid-1970s, the NRA supported waiting periods for handgun purchases. Since then, however, it has opposed them. It fought vehemently against the ultimately successful enactment of a five-business-day waiting period and background checks for handgun purchases in 1993.
A woman carries an AR-15 at a gun rights rally at the Utah State Capitol. Photo: George Frey/Getty Images
What influence does the group have?
The NRA’s influence hit a zenith during George W Bush’s gun-friendly presidency, which embraced the group’s positions.
Among other things, his administration let the ban on assault weapons expire, and it supported the NRA’s top legislative priority: enactment in 2005 of special liability protections for the gun industry, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
Despite past successes, the NRA has suffered from a series of mostly self-inflicted blows that have precipitated an existential crisis for the organisation.
Most significantly, an investigation by the New York Attorney General, filed in 2020, has revealed extensive allegations of rampant cronyism, corruption, sweetheart deals and fraud.
Partly as a result of these revelations, NRA membership has apparently declined to roughly 4.5 million, down from a high of about 5 million.
So the group’s power is waning?
Not exactly. The grassroots gun community is no less committed to its agenda of opposition to new gun laws.
Indeed, the Pew Research Centre’s findings in 2017 suggested that about 14 million people identify with the group. By any measure, that’s a small minority out of nearly 260 million US voters.
But support for gun rights has become a litmus test for Republican conservativism and is baked into the major political party’s agenda.
This laser-like focus on gun issues continues to enhance the NRA’s influence even when the organisation faces turmoil. This means that the protection and advancement of gun rights are propelled by the broader conservative movement, so that the NRA no longer needs to carry the ball by itself.
Gun enthusiasts explore products displayed on the exhibition floor at the NRA’s annual meeting in 2008 in Kentucky. Photo: Getty Images
What about Trump’s association with the group?
Like Bush, Trump maintained a cosy relationship with the NRA. It was among his 2016 presidential bid’s most enthusiastic backers, contributing $31 million (€28.9 million) to his presidential campaign.
When Trump directed the Justice Department to draft a rule banning bump stocks, and indicated his belated support for improving background checks for gun purchases after the Parkland shooting, he was sticking with NRA-approved positions. He also supported arming teachers, another NRA proposal.
Only one point of difference emerged between the Trump administration and the NRA: his apparent willingness to consider raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21 – which has not happened.
In 2022, a year after Trump left office, 18-year-olds, including the gunmen allegedly responsible for the mass shootings in Uvelde and Buffalo, were able to legally purchase firearms.
So is there any chance of increased gun control in the US?
In politics, victory usually belongs to whoever shows up. And by showing up, the NRA has managed to strangle every federal effort to restrict guns since the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012 during which 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people.
Nevertheless, the NRA does not always win. At least 25 states had enacted their own new gun regulations within five years of that tragedy.
These latest mass shootings may stir gun safety supporters to mobilise public outrage and turn out voters favouring stricter firearm regulations during the 2022 midterm elections.
Gun-control advocates hold a vigil outside the NRA’s headquarters following the recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. Photo: Getty Images
But there is a wild card: The Supreme Court will soon rule on New York State Rifle & Pistol Club v Bruen, the most significant case regarding gun rights it has considered in years.
It’s likely that the court will strike down a long-standing New York pistol permit law, broadening the right to carry guns in public across the United States.
Such a decision could galvanise gun safety supporters while also emboldening gun rights activists – making the debate about guns in America even more tumultuous.
Has the NRA reacted to the latest school shooting in Texas?
The NRA on Wednesday said its “deepest sympathies” were with the families and victims of the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas – describing the atrocity as the act of a “lone, deranged criminal.”
“Our deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime,” it said.
“On behalf of our members, we salute the courage of school officials, first responders and others who offered their support and services.
— NRA (@NRA) May 25, 2022
“Although an investigation is underway and facts are still emerging, we recognise this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal. As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognise our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
Perhaps most tellingly, when former president Donald Trump speaks at the NRA conference on Friday, NPR reports that audience members will not be permitted to carry guns.
Additional reporting: Reuters