Analysis: How much influence does the NRA have in Tennessee? Here’s a look.

Gun Rights

Since the shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville ended with six dead, thousands of Tennesseans have called for the state legislature to have a meaningful conversation aimed at gun safety.

But Republicans have little appetite for measure restricting access to firearms.

Opponents have, at times, blamed lawmakers’ lack of action on gun-specific policies on the financial influence of the 5-million member National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups that have voraciously decried the special session as an attack on the Second Amendment.

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But in reality, the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund PAC in Tennessee has spent less than $10,000 on state-level campaigns in the last decade.

It doesn’t have to. 

The group is viewed as a major player on any gun-related policy discussions at the Capitol, carrying influence well beyond any direct political contributions.

Indeed, instead of campaign contributions, the organization has cultivated influence by winning the hearts and minds of lawmakers’ constituents in rural Tennessee counties.

The NRA Foundation, a non-political charity that shares leadership with the main NRA, has contributed more than $457,000 to school districts, shooting teams, the University of Tennessee, and community groups across the state in the last four years.

The foundation’s all-volunteer fundraising group, Friends of the NRA, has active regional chapters across the state that hold raffles and social events for NRA members.

Although gun-rights groups in Tennessee don’t necessarily support lawmakers with large direct contributions, often the threat of a negative rating or vocal rhetoric from gun rights groups is enough to influence lawmakers.

How much money has the NRA spent on candidates?

While the group endorsed Gov. Bill Lee’s reelection last year, the NRA has spent less than $10,000 total in state-level campaign contributions for Tennessee candidates in the last decade, primarily to support members who are no longer in public office. 

Since 2013, only three sitting members have received NRA contributions: House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Sens. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and John Stevens, R-Huntington.

The NRA’s last significant spending was 2012, when it supported a total of 22 members who are still in office. Each received contributions of $500 or less. Four of the nine members of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee have received contributions from the NRA since 2012.

Those who’ve served in the legislature that long can remember what happens to members who don’t conform in lockstep to the NRA’s political agenda.

In 2012, the NRA spent $155,000 opposing the reelection of then-House GOP Caucus Chair Debra Maggart, a Sumner County Republican and a lifetime NRA member who had an A+ ranking from the group. Why? Even though she sponsored 10 gun-rights bills, she voted against legislation that would have forced property owners to allow anyone to store guns in cars on their property. 

The group ran full-page newspaper ads, launched a “Defeat Maggart” website, ran radio ads, robo calls, sent nine mailers to voter mailboxes, and bought five billboards in her hometown of Hendersonville, placing her photo alongside then-President Barack Obama.

“Because of NRA bully tactics, legislators are not free to openly discuss the merits of gun-related legislation,” Maggart wrote in a New York Times op-ed at the time. “This stifling of discussion does not serve the interest of the public nor of the gun owners. But the NRA gets their way because they know how intimidating they are and they know that lawmakers are afraid to speak openly about what needs to be done.”

NRA lobbyists influence bill drafts behind closed doors

Lobbyists for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action remain critical stakeholders in policy discussions on gun-related bills in the state legislature. 

A former Lee aide, Matt Herriman, left the governor’s office in 2019 to become the NRA’s lobbyist in Tennessee and several other states. Herriman played a key role in the passage of Tennessee’s permitless carry legislation, which Lee backed in 2021 and is one of the broadest expansions of gun rights in the state.

“In Tennessee, with the help of Gov. Lee’s leadership, we gave Tennesseans the ability to protect themselves without asking the government for permission,” Herrmian wrote in a social media post when he transitioned out of that role.

In the days following the Covenant shooting, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s policy team sought behind-the-scenes feedback from NRA lobbyist Kelby Seanor on policy responses to the shooting, according to email records obtained by The Tennessean. Seanor recommended changes to make it easier for people to be involuntarily committed if determined a risk.

“Please see the attached document with these small changes to the standard for an emergency evaluation and involuntary commitment to make it slightly easier to take someone in for an evaluation or commit them involuntarily,” Seanor wrote in an April 14 email to McNally’s Chief of Staff Rick Nicholson. “These could be paired with funding for more public mental health facilities as an alternative to the orders we’ve seen.”

The NRA proposal drew rare ire from the Republican governor’s policy team. An internal memo obtained by the Associated Press and The Tennessean accused the NRA of wanting “to round up mentally ill people and deprive them of other liberties.”

“Not only is the NRA’s proposal impractical dramatically expand the scope of government,” the memo reads.

Seanor later publicly declared opposition to Lee’s risk protection order proposal. Amid opposition from the NRA and other gun-rights groups, no Republican lawmaker has volunteered to sponsor the governor’s bill. 

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, who has worked throughout the summer on a proposal to heighten penalties for individuals who threaten mass violence in an effort to stop mass attacks before they occur, sought the NRA’s feedback on his idea, he said, though the group did not play any kind of active role in the bill’s drafting.

While NRA leadership pushes for its political agenda, individual NRA members in Tennessee’s rural counties don’t always agree. Many responded to Lee’s call for public feedback this summer by calling for lawmakers to consider some measures to ensure gun safety. 

“I am a gun owner and NRA member yet I do feel some action should be taken that will reduce the access of high risk individuals to weapons,” a Putnam County man wrote to Lee in May. “Background checks, waiting periods, a sworn statement from family members or friends supporting gun ownership, psychological screens, and drug screens should all be considered.”

“I’m a proponent of the 2nd amendment. But we need ‘Red Flag Laws’ in Tennessee,” a lifetime NRA member from Greene County wrote. “Also stop selling AR-15s to the general public…it may not make any difference, but let’s try.”

Winning hearts and minds

The NRA’s presence can also be felt throughout the state in other ways. Its associated charity, the NRA Foundation, which is classified in tax filings as a “crime prevention” organization, has contributed $457,000 since 2018 to shooting sports teams, schools and school districts and community organizations in Tennessee, according to federal tax records. 

The group distributes hundreds of grants to nonprofits, activists, and government agencies across the country each year “in support of firearm-related public interest activities,” according to tax filings.

A general shooting program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has received significant support from the NRA Foundation. Since 2018, the NRA Foundation has given a combined $134,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the school, according to tax records.

NRA Foundation has distributed another $323,000 in combined cash and in-kind grants to Tennessee shooting clubs, schools, and community organizations since 2018.

Of the $139,000 distributed in 2018, $76,300 went to school districts, including a $35,863 grant to the Carter County Board of Education in Elizabethton. Six other school districts received grants: Shelby County Board of Education, Williamson County Schools, Rutherford County Board of Education, Hamilton County Department of Education, Cannon County Board of Education, and Gibson County Special School District. 

In 2019, the NRA Foundation donated more than $80,000 to shooting clubs, Middle Tennessee Council, Boy Scouts, and a handful of private Christian schools in the state.

In 2020, the foundation also gave nearly $64,000 in cash and in-kind donations to Tennessee high schools for competitive shooting programs, and also gave Putnam County government a $6,000 community outreach grant. 

In 2021, the NRA Foundation gave nearly $40,000 in cash and in-kind donations to community organizations across the state, including:

  • A $6,000 in-kind grant to Bearden High School in Knoxville for a competitive shooting program
  • A $7,000 grant to the John Sevier Memorial Foundation in Knoxville, which maintains the Marble Springs State Historical Site
  • Nearly $6,000 in-kind grant to Morristown-Hamblen High School East in Morristown for a competitive shooting program
  • A $6,700 grant to William Blount Shooting Team in Greenback, Tennessee for a competitive shooting program
  • Nearly $14,000 in-kind to Wilson Elementary School in Murfreesboro for a general shooting program

Meanwhile, the volunteer-powered fundraising leg of the NRA Foundation, Friends of the NRA, also hosts social fundraiser dinners and raffles to raise support for shooting sports programs, and firearms training. Dinners that typically feature receptions, raffles, and a keynote speaker. Events are advertised as “a family-friendly,” and sometimes also feature “Eddie Eagle” gun safety activities for kids.

Friends of the NRA also facilitates local fundraising raffle “donation contests,” where contestants can purchase tickets for $20 to $50 to qualify to win prize guns, including handguns, revolvers, and autoloading rifles. One ongoing drawing in Fayette County features 31 guns, one to be given away each day in October. Another ongoing “donation contest” in East Tennessee will give 50% of proceeds to benefit a Newport chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 

Winners of all drawings are required to undergo a background check by a federally-licensed firearms dealer – but that may not rule out all individuals who are barred from owning a gun.

Which lawmakers has the Tennessee Firearms Association supported?

Unrelated to the NRA, the Tennessee Firearms Association has been one of the most vocal advocates against any restrictions on gun ownership and use in the state, ahead of the upcoming special session.

While the NRA’s PAC has not contributed to campaigns much recently, TFA spent $20,000 in campaign contributions during the 2022 cycle alone, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Election and Campaign Finance.

TFA also spent $4,000 supporting unsuccessful reelection bids of former Reps. John Mark Windle, and Terri Lynn Weaver. Here are the 23 sitting lawmakers TFA supported.

  • Sen. Paul Bailey – $500 
  • Sen. Rusty Crowe – $500
  • Sen. Adam Lowe – $500
  • Sen. Mark Pody – $500
  • Sen. Kerry Roberts – $500 
  • Sen. Dawn White – $500
  • Rep. Jody Barrett – $1,500
  • Rep. Rush Bricken – $500
  • Rep. Gino Bulso – $1,250
  • Rep. Kip Capley – $1,750
  • Rep. Scott Cepicky – $1,000
  • Rep. Elaine Davis – $3,250
  • Rep. Clay Doggett – $1,500
  • Rep. Rick Eldridge – $500 
  • Rep. Rusty Grills – $1,500 
  • Rep. Mary Littleton – $500
  • Rep. Brock Martin – $500
  • Rep. Debra Moody – $500
  • Rep. John Ragan – $1,000
  • Rep. Brian Richey – $250
  • Rep. Paul Sherrell – $1,250
  • Rep. Chris Todd – $1,000
  • Rep. Todd Warner – $750

Contact reporter Vivian Jones at or on X and Threads at @Vivian_E_Jones. 

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