With the National Rifle Association still in its years-long decline, gun manufacturers are on the hunt for alternative standard-bearers. But according to data shared with The Daily Beast, these gun companies may have found their new favorite political weapon: themselves.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade association, isn’t as well known as the NRA, but it spends more money annually to influence policy, while pushing the country further to the right.
As the NRA has faltered, the NSSF has been on the rise. And while the organization markets itself as something of a kinder, gentler NRA—on a mission to “promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports”—critics say that’s just a fantasy.
Shannon Watts, founder of gun control organization Moms Demand Action, told The Daily Beast that the NSSF is a “front group” for the firearms industry and “trafficks in the same extremist, guns-everywhere agenda” as the NRA.
“They’re focused on the profitability of the gun industry above all other concerns—including the safety of the American public,” Watts said.
Ryan Busse, who recently left firearms manufacturer Kimber America to become an industry whistleblower, told The Daily Beast that an ascendant NSSF, under the influence of a radicalized consumer base, will position itself “further right than the NRA ever thought.”
“The NRA has been sort of this messaging and PR mouthpiece for the industry, but the industry is in essence the truly powerful thing, which is why the NSSF is taking a more visible role,” said Busse, now a senior adviser at gun control advocacy group Giffords. “With all the lessons they’ve learned, they know that conciliation on policy is a losing proposition, so they’re going to be as far right or further right than the NRA ever thought.”
Busse, who testified this week before the House Oversight Committee, added that the NSSF feels further pressure from the far right, including organizations like Guns Owners of America, who are, in his words, “crazily radical.” The NSSF, he said, has made a Faustian bargain with its base: It is willing to accept increasing extremism among gun fanatics if it means more power and profit for gun manufacturers.
“Gun politics aren’t at the center of politics? Bullshit,” Busse said. “It looks very much like Trumpism, and in fact it’s where Trumpism all started. The firearms industry radicalized and empowered a certain brand of consumer, and that base ends up setting the policy.”
The result, Busse said, is a gun industry that’s “increasingly addicted to or reliant on an ever-spiraling condition” in U.S. politics.
“It’s like a badly gerrymandered district, where the pressure only comes from the most extreme base,” he added. “That should frighten everyone.”
It doesn’t appear to frighten the NSSF, which is headquartered about a 10-minute drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The group is both run and funded almost entirely by gun manufacturers, and has seen its revenue almost double between 2008 and 2019, when it raised nearly $50 million.
The executives on the NSSF board of governors are also executives in the gun industry. They include its chair Robert L. Scott, who also chairs Smith & Wesson Brands, and Marty Daniel, of Daniel Defense—the company that made the rifle which launched the bullets in the Robb Elementary massacre in Uvalde, Texas, this May.
They have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal annually. According to a comprehensive report that Giffords shared exclusively with The Daily Beast, annual NSSF revenue topped $46 million in 2019, the most recent available data, with spending keeping pace at $43.6 million. However, as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, the group doesn’t have to disclose the names of its donors.
While the group claims “education has always been the fundamental focus of the NSSF throughout its history,” its recent tax reports say otherwise. Between April 2014 and March 2019, the NSSF has spent between 5.1 percent and 5.8 percent of its revenue on “Safety and Education.”
Instead, the group appears more dedicated to promoting, protecting, and sustaining the gun industry. And when the NSSF spends its money to help influence those policy goals, it goes overwhelmingly to Republicans.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the nonprofit has poured $2.1 million into Republican campaigns since 2012, while giving Democrats less than $90,000—or about 4 percent of the GOP total.
The NSSF has also put money directly into the pocket of former President Donald Trump. The New York Times reported that, in 2018, the NSSF spent $62,000 at the then president’s D.C. hotel, and held a conference there the following year. In 2020, Trump repealed a ban on selling silencers to foreign purchasers. Congress is investigating the NSSF’s role in that decision, according to the Times.
The group’s lobbying arm is influential. It has invested a total $36.5 million at the federal level since 2012, and about $2.5 million already this year, per CRP data. According to the Giffords report, the NSSF has now outspent the NRA in federal lobbying for five of the last seven years, including the last three—and even lobbied on the NRA’s behalf when the New York Attorney General’s office sought to shut the NRA down for misusing funds.
“This would appear to make the NSSF the dominant gun lobby in Washington,” the report concludes.
While the NSSF’s tax status allows it to keep its donor list private, it’s clear from financial disclosures and reporting that the group gets the bulk of its financial support from the firearms industry. Unlike the NRA, most of its money doesn’t come from donations and dues; it comes from an annual trade event, called the SHOT Show.
SHOT is the largest firearms trade show in the world. According to ProPublica data, the event has accounted for at least 75 percent of NSSF revenue each year between 2008 and 2019, when it comprised 82 percent of its revenue.
The NSSF says this year’s event drew 43,000 registered guests to Las Vegas, to browse the wares of 2,400 companies. While that may sound like a lot of people, it actually represented a 22 percent drop over the 2020 convention, which took place before the COVID pandemic hit the United States.
The SHOT show is so critical, in fact, that after COVID forced the NSSF to cancel and go virtual in 2021, the group reportedly laid off 20 percent of its employees. Gunmakers chipped in to offset some of the losses, with Mossberg, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, and Benelli alone giving a combined $1.25 million.
Firearms companies also poured money into the NSSF’s #GUNVOTE campaign ahead of the 2020 election. The organization celebrated about $2 million of those gifts in various press releases.
“This election cycle marks a crossroads in the future of the firearms industry and of our very freedom to bear arms,” said Mark Smith, president and CEO of Smith & Wesson, which contributed $500,000 to the voter outreach and registration program.
But the NSSF has also benefited from taxpayer dollars, collecting more than $90 million in government grants and contracts in the past two decades, according to Giffords’ data.
A sizable chunk of grant money came from Veterans Affairs, related to the “Project ChildSafe” program, which provides free gun locks across the country.
The NSSF points to Project Childsafe as proof that “education has always been the fundamental focus of the NSSF throughout its history.”
According to the group, Project Childsafe has handed out 40 million free gun locks over the last two decades. But the firearms industry didn’t pay for it. At least 36.5 million of the 40 million locks it distributed were federally subsidized, according to Giffords.
The NSSF severed the project into a separate 501(c)(3) group in 2014, which has since struggled, pulling in less than $700,000 total over the last six years while spending less than $200,000 on the program itself, according to Giffords.
At the end of the day, said Busse, the former gun executive, the money is a sideshow that distracts from a much deeper well of influence.
“Money is small-town. Money is nothing,” he said. “They give something far more valuable than money. It’s the radicalized base of supporters.”
That base includes anti-government militia groups.
“The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and boogaloos are all radicalized by guns,” Busse said. He noted that two firearms executives—Christopher Killoy of Ruger and Mark Daniel—testified at last week’s hearing, but “neither would disavow the worst advertising.”
“Gun companies are openly marketing to the boogaloo bois, but these guys wouldn’t even disavow the boogaloo bois rifle when they were asked,” Busse said. “‘We haven’t seen that,’ they’d say, and, ‘It’s not our responsibility.’ They will never, ever criticize the far right.”
In Busse’s view, violent extremism is another useful item in the lobbying toolkit.
“There’s a really effective intimidation strategy going on now, which again you also see in Trumpism,” he said.
Busse pointed out that many politicians feared for their physical safety after their Jan. 6 votes—Democrats, but also Republicans who crossed the MAGA wing of the party.
“In this case, you’ve got nuts walking around town with guns literally strapped to their chest,” he said. “There’s an implicit threat in the very idea of what these groups represent. Nobody says that.”