Gun Owners of America steps into the spotlight as NRA’s power fades

Gun Rights

A Virginia-based gun rights group that had operated in the shadow of the National Rifle Association is quickly rising in rank, growing to more than 2 million members and committed to taking down lawmakers who show any sign of compromise on gun control

The Gun Owners of America, which has been around since 1976, has seen a spike in membership following the NRA’s recent fall from grace. 

The NRA was the most powerful gun rights group in the nation for decades but lost hundreds of thousands of members following allegations of fraud and abuse. To deal with the mass exodus, the organization also cut programs that were popular with its members, such as gun training, which led to more people leaving.

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On top of that, the organization and its longtime head, Wayne LaPierre, were found liable by a Manhattan jury in a civil case earlier this year. Jurors agreed LaPierre had “violated his statutory obligation to discharge the duties of his position in good faith” and that his actions cost the organization $5.4 million.  

“The NRA is little more than a shell of itself after hemorrhaging hundreds of millions in legal fees,” Joshua Powell, a former top NRA official who settled with the state before the trial, told the New York Times.

There was a time when the NRA’s blessing or opposition meant passage or defeat for gun legislation. The once-powerful lobbying group was both feared and revered in Washington and had been championing Second Amendment rights since 1871.

Between 2003 and 2013, the organization scored 230 legislative victories, including passing six state laws that forbid municipalities from limiting gun rights. Despite those wins, the NRA was unable to secure the expansion of concealed carry, as well as a change to laws restricting gun silencers when the GOP had full control of the House, Senate, and the White House in 2017 and 2018. As mass shootings piled up, public pressure on lawmakers to find a compromise grew, and the core members of the NRA started looking elsewhere for representation.

According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit government ethics watchdog, the NRA raised only $213 million in 2022. While that may seem like a lot, it marked a 52% drop in overall revenue for the organization.

Coupled with New York Attorney General Letitia James’s huge win against LaPierre and NRA, the writing was on the wall that the once mighty organization was in trouble.

Despite its dwindling numbers, the NRA still carries some clout and attracts high-profile speakers to its events. 

Last month, former President Donald Trump was the keynote speaker at the NRA Presidential Forum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was his eighth address to NRA members and one in which he again cast himself as “the best friend gun owners have ever had in the White House.” 

He added that if he wins the presidency in November, “no one will lay a finger on your firearms.” 

Trump first spoke at the NRA in 2015, and in 2016, he made a promise to “never let NRA members down.”

GOA waiting in the wings

The GOA proudly pitches itself as the “no compromise” gun group and spent more than $3 million last year on lobbying efforts. It has capitalized on the NRA’s financial and legal woes and emerged as a power player in politics. 

“Obviously, there is going to be overlap, but what I think is unique about Gun Owners of America is that we are the ‘no compromise’ lobby group in D.C.,” Erich Pratt, senior vice president for GOA, told the Washington Examiner. “We have never supported gun control, not even so-called ‘gun control-lite’ like other groups have. Whether we are fighting in the courts or lobbying in the halls of Congress, we are opposing all limitations on our Second Amendment rights. I think that’s what really makes us unique in this.”

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Pratt, a father of 11 who is on a church mission in Mexico, is acutely aware there is an appetite for gun control, especially in an election year, but said his organization refuses to budge.

In fact, there are at least a dozen people on staff who are actively monitoring comments lawmakers are making and actions they are taking. If they do not embrace the organization’s hard-line approach to gun control, GOA may turn on them.

“There are millions of Americans who don’t want compromise,” Pratt said. “I realize that that is always the politician’s tug, to go that direction, but we hope to be that anchor that holds them to the Constitution, that holds them to their oath of office, and we will give them the grassroots support if they will do that. On the other hand, if they are going to go their own way and drift out to sea and support compromise, then they aren’t going to get any help from us in getting reelected or elected to office.”

Like the NRA, the GOA has election guides for its members and grades lawmakers on their commitment to the Second Amendment. 

“It’s kind of a big production,” Pratt said. “We have a lot of people who are producing the survey, who are gathering the votes, who are putting all of these things together, reaching out to the candidates to make sure they answer our survey, etc. And if they don’t, in some cases, we’ll even put pressure on them and have the grassroots say, ‘Hey, how come you’re not answering the GOA survey? That’s not a good indication. You call yourself a good Republican? Are you trying to hide something?'”

The GOA’s no-compromise stance was underscored by its opposition to a compromise gun control bill in 2022. The measure was the first bipartisan gun control bill since 1994. 

“The GOA was formed in the 1970s because they believed the NRA was too liberal,” said Robert Spitzer, the author of several books on guns and a professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland in New York. “True to its creed, the GOA has opposed every manner of gun law and attacked the NRA at every turn.”

Pratt said the goal of GOA is to grow its membership and dispel myths people have about gun rights groups. 

“The biggest misconception is that they think guns are the problem, so they think we are kind of merchants of death who are fuel to gun crime,” he said. “Our counter to that is that we fight for Second Amendment rights because it is the amendment that protects all of our other rights.”

Pratt added that he is aware people “tend to think Second Amendment groups are just for white males.”

To change that perception, GOA sponsors, along with other gun groups, hold an annual event in Detroit to help train women from the inner city on how to use firearms. 

“It’s all for free for them,” Pratt said, adding that last year, 1,400 women were trained over the weekend. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

The organization is also gearing up for its first national summit in August.

The Knoxville, Tennessee, event is expected to draw tens of thousands of attendees and will be held three months ahead of the 2024 presidential election, which Pratt called “the most critical in history for Second Amendment rights.” 

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