After the gun bill failed in the Senate Wednesday, a visibly upset President Obama placed much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the National Rifle Association, saying the gun group and its allies "willfully lied" to the public. The White House portrayed the gun rights organization as all-powerful, all-responsible.
But it wasn't always this way.
For decades, the NRA was a marksmanship, hunting and safety group, hosting mostly recreational activities for gun enthusiasts. But fast forward to 1977 in Cincinnati, where more than 2,000 NRA members held a conference to veer the organization in a very different direction. By the end of a marathon, overnight session, the old guard of the NRA was out and a new guard was in – along with a bylaw change that made defense of Second Amendment central to the group's mission, according to the encyclopedia "Guns in American Society."
To meet that new mission, the group increased funding for the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm that today has a budget of some $10 million in 2010. That year the NRA had 781 full time employees, 125,000 volunteers, and revenues of $227.8 million. And that tectonic shift away from safety and recreation to smash mouth lobbying and politics has left many gun owners looking for a group that will represent their interests.
Dan Baum, an investigative reporter and author of the recent book "Gun Guys: A Road Trip" about gun culture in the U.S., says he gets five or six emails a day from people who say: "I'm a gun guy, and I can't stand the NRA."
The NRA has four million members. There are an estimated 100 million gun owners in America.
So if the NRA doesn't represent "gun guys," then who does?
"NRA is the 900 pound gorilla in the room," says Dave Workman, a senior editor at TheGunMag.com and communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which claims to have 650,000 members. He is also a former board member of the NRA. Workman rattles off five other gun owner groups: the Second Amendment Foundation, his Citizens Committee, Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.
Every one of these groups professes to represent gun owners. But that doesn't mean they all agree.
"Some people thought the world ended when they didn't stop the filibuster," says Workman of recent moves by conservative senators to block debate on new gun laws. "But then there are a lot of gun owners who are quite liberal on social issues. There's a segment of gun people who actually voted for Obama, who traditionally vote democrat, who are union guys or teachers or whatever. … The gun community is not a monolithic group."
That became abundantly clear last Sunday, when the Citizens Committee came out in support of a compromise background check law drafted by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., while most of the gun community decried it. On gun forums like the HighRoad.org, gun owners worried that background checks would mean mandatory registration.
"The FEDs will come back and say: 'We cannot implement your new law unless you allow us to register all firearms,' " wrote one user. "So the inevitable next step to mandating background check on all firearm sales will be a demand to Congress that all firearms be registered, without which the law will be impossible to enforce. Registration is a VERY bad idea."
Alan Gottlieb, the chairman of Citizens Committee and the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, sang an entirely different tune at a Portland, Oregon, golf club event Friday, when he urged gun owners to recognize that the background checks were reasonable and that it wasn't a national registration system.
"I think we give an inch but get back a yard," he says of the bill.
Gottlieb blames the resistance to the legislation by other gun groups on a "toxic environment" created in part by calls for an assault weapons ban by President Obama and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.