Both sides of gun issue seek to stir up US voters as NRA influence wanes

<span>Gun-control advocacy groups rally outside the Capitol in Washington DC on 26 May 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</span>
Gun-control advocacy groups rally outside the Capitol in Washington DC on 26 May 2022.Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anti-gun-control groups and gun-safety advocates are launching hefty voter-mobilization drives this year with the stakes high in the fall elections given the stark differences on gun violence policy between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

But the long-powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which has been beset with financial and legal headaches for several years, is not expected to be nearly as active as in 2016, when it spent more than $31m to back Trump’s victorious campaign by boosting his political fortunes in key states, say gun experts and ex-NRA insiders.

Now, though, other anti-gun-control groups are trying to take up the slack.

For instance, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an influential firearms industry lobbying group, has begun an eight-figure voter-mobilization drive to help pro-gun interests defeat President Biden, whose strong support for gun-control measures it finds anathema.

The NSSF’s general counsel, Larry Keane, said that the organization’s “GunVote” campaign will focus on seven to nine battleground states, where it will mount voter-registration, education and get-out-the-vote efforts to help Trump win the presidency again.

On the other side of this year’s election brawl over gun control, Everytown for Gun Safety is planning a large effort to get its millions of supporters to help re-elect Biden and defeat Trump, who has a record of siding firmly with pro-gun priorities.

“We’re going to knock on doors, make calls, rally and campaign for President Biden,” said Nick Suplina, the senior vice-president for law and policy at Everytown, which claims nearly 10 million supporters including mayors, students, gun owners, teachers and others.

The stakes seem higher than usual given Biden’s successes as president backing new gun-control measures such as the first new law in three decades boosting gun safety, and Biden’s talk of doing more if he’s re-elected, including fighting for an assault weapons ban, which would probably need Democratic control of Congress to enact.

By contrast, Trump has often reiterated his fealty to the pro-gun lobby, which characterized his presidency. At last month’s NRA annual meeting, Trump earned a ringing endorsement and pledged that if he wins, “no one will lay a finger on your firearms”.

But the once deep-pocketed and five-million-member NRA remains mired in internal and financial headaches: its annual revenues have dropped for several years while its legal expenses have risen.

The NRA’s problems were underscored when its longtime top executive, Wayne LaPierre, resigned in January as he was about to go on trial in New York, where he was convicted of looting the organization to enjoy lavish personal perks including fancy vacations and expensive clothes.

“The NRA is going to again be a peripheral player for lack of funding this election cycle, and that could hurt Trump in several battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota,” a former NRA board member said.

“It’s a vacuum compared to 2016 when the NRA was robustly engaged,” the ex-board member added.

Longtime observers of gun-control fights agree.

Robert Spitzer, the author of several books on gun issues and an emeritus political science professor at Suny Cortland in New York, said the NRA was “as strongly behind [Trump] as they have been before”.

“However, the organization simply does not possess the money or personnel to be as influential as they were in 2016, when they spent over $31m on his campaign, and over $70m on Republican efforts around the country. Still, the gun issue will continue to be salient to an important segment of the Trump base.”

Spitzer added: “Other gun groups, such as the NSSF and state gun groups, will be working to supplant the NRA’s traditional dominance in national politics. They do not possess the degree of organization, experience and reach as the NRA of old, but they will ratchet up their efforts.”

That’s what the NSSF, whose members include such gun giants as Sturm, Ruger & Co and Smith & Wesson, plus other anti-gun-control groups say they intend to do. “There’s a stark difference between Trump and Biden,” Keane said in explaining the NSSF’s hefty effort this year. “It’s clear there are ongoing challenges at the NRA.”

Some ex-NRA leaders credit NSSF with trying to fill the NRA’s vacuum. “NSSF has attempted, and continues, to fill the gap left by a weakened NRA,” Jim Baker, the NRA’s former top lobbyist, said.

The NRA did not respond to a call seeking comments.

Further, the Trump campaign in tandem with the Republican National Committee has launched Gun Owners for Trump including firearms makers and gun-rights advocates such as Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation; Women for Gun Rights; and some NRA officials.

To spur more pro-gun votes at the polls, Trump has spoken twice this year at NRA events. At their May meeting, Trump employed some incendiary conspiracy-mongering, telling the crowd that Biden “has a 40-year record of trying to rip firearms out of the hands of law-abiding citizens”.

Gun-control advocates and the Biden campaign are using Trump’s own pro-gun pledges and cavalier attitude towards gun violence to rev up their backers, including younger voters and women.

After an Iowa school shooting in January, for instance, Trump callously opined that “we have to get over it”, a clip of which is being circulated by Democrats and pro-gun-control advocates.

Likewise, another clip in circulation shows Trump boasting to NRA members in May that he “did nothing” as president on guns. Actually, Trump signed a “bump stock” ban after the country’s largest gun massacre ever in Las Vegas, but the supreme court overturned it this month.

Biden cemented his gun-control credentials in 2022 when, after the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre, he pushed hard for a gun-safety bill that passed on a bipartisan basis, becoming the first new gun-control law in almost three decades.

To energize his supporters, Biden spoke to an Everytown training event for about 1,000 gun-safety volunteers including students on 12 June, where he cited several major achievements, including setting up a White House office focused on curbing gun violence and beefing up the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms.

Biden urged a ban on assault-style weapons and universal background checks for purchases of firearms, both goals he has stressed before.

“We need you to overcome the unrelenting opposition of the gun lobby,” Biden said.

Suplina said Everytown’s plans for targeting states to help Biden and how much they intend to spend overall this election cycle were not ready to be announced, but he did reveal that Everytown intends to support 465 of its volunteers who are running for office this year. The majority of these races are state and local.

Further, Everytown will be backing Senate and House candidates who support gun-safety measures, Suplina said.

Overall, Everytown spent about $55m on 2020 election efforts.

Other gun-control advocates have broad election plans

“This cycle, GIiffords will use its unique identity as a gun owner and survivor-led organization to reach a broad gun safety coalition in battlegrounds – including Democrats, Republicans, young voters, gun owners, and people of color,” Emma Brown, executive director of Giffords, said in a statement

The group plans on “supporting gun safety champions in key House and Senate races, [and] communicating the Biden-Harris administration’s historic gun safety accomplishments in states across the map,” she added.

Looking ahead, Spitzer stressed that Biden “has continued to speak out on gun safety, and gun-safety groups will surely redouble their efforts on his behalf, not only to help him get re-elected, but to advance the cause of down-ballot Democrats running for Congress and state offices, where the fate of many gun laws lie”.