Ahead of the annual National Rifle Association meeting this weekend in Houston, gun control groups are going all out to ensure Americans know who they think the firearms group really represents. On a call with reporters Thursday, Americans United for Change and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence – both liberal, anti-gun groups – argued that the NRA today represents the gun industry, not gun owners.
That assertion holds some water. For decades the NRA was a marksmanship, hunting and safety group, but it has increasingly veered into the world of lobbying and politics ever since an insurrection at a 1977 annual meeting in Cincinnati led the group to its current mission: the vigorous defense of Second Amendment.
This year's annual meeting is expected to be nowhere near as contentious as the one in Cincinnati decades ago.
"The golden age of NRA debate at the annual meeting is over. The chances of dissenting voices are zero," said Josh Sugarmann of the gun control group the Violence Policy Center. "But a measure of our success is to increase the public understanding of what the NRA has become – a trade association ... that is not protecting gun owners, but the gun industry."
And the NRA has some company. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Conn., is considered the primary trade association for the gun industry.
As evidence the NRA also plays that role, gun control groups cite the extensive corporate outreach the NRA does today, and the tens of millions of dollars in donations they have to show for it. According to a study from the Violence Policy Center in 2011, the gun industry and other corporations contributed between $19.8 million and $52.6 million to the NRA between 2005 and 2011, and those annual levels have since increased.
The NRA did not respond to request for comment for this story.
But the NRA does do outreach to gun owners, and this weekend's convention is hard evidence of that. Visitors to the convention can watch training and education demos, attend gun-related book signings, and visit antique gun showcases at more than 500 stalls.
Sunday's NRA Youth Day also comes with this friendly memo from the group: "Spend the day exploring 400,000 square feet of exhibit hall ... [And] take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to share the enjoyment of the Shooting Sports with your friends and family."
But though 70,000 people are expected to descend on the conference, many more gun owners will stay away. Some 100 million people own guns in America; only four million belong to the NRA, according to figures from the organization.