Make no mistake: Advocacy for the expansion of gun rights will remain vibrant in the United States. The suddenly relevant question is whether the National Rifle Association — the nation’s largest and politically potent gun rights group for decades — will be at the head of that movement, thanks to the NRA’s increasingly visible role in the relationship between the Russian government and the 2016 Trump campaign. Russian operative (and American University grad student) Maria Butina’s guilty plea in a Washington courtroom in exchange for full cooperation in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation suggests that the NRA is suddenly in a very precarious position.
We know several things about the NRA and the 2016 elections. First, the NRA invested heavily in the 2016 Trump campaign. The organization’s overall spending shot up by $100 million in 2016 as compared to the previous year, and $30.3 million of that spending was in support of the Trump campaign. Remarkably, that spending on behalf of one candidate was more than the NRA’s combined spending in all federal races (presidential, Senate and House) during the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles. Moreover, we know that some Russian money did come into the NRA coffers during the 2016 election cycle. The question remains whether it was a small amount or a decidedly larger amount that went to the Trump campaign (obviously a big problem for all involved). While the NRA does have to report its overall spending, it does not have to publicly report the sources of those funds. Third, we know that there were numerous meetings between NRA and Russian officials in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. While many photos of these meetings have come to light, little is known about what was said. The relatively leniency of the special prosecutor’s office with Butina suggests it thinks the self-identified Russian gun-rights advocate who made deep inroads with NRA officials could answer some key questions. The biggest question for the future of gun politics in the U.S.: Does the NRA just get a little mud on it because of its involvement in the scheme or is their participation more damning?
The Mueller investigation is not the NRA’s only problem at the moment. Because of Trump’s support for gun rights, membership in and contributions to the NRA have dropped precipitously as gun rights advocates have confidence that those rights will be protected by the Trump administration. This represents the natural tides of interest group politics — as the threat to a group recedes because of a big election victory, disengagement by their members follows. When it comes to federal legislation, of course, gun rights advocates are right. No significant change will happen on federal gun laws (excepting the case of bars on bump stocks).
However, as I’ve noted before, the real action on guns at the moment is at the state level in the U.S. For the first time, the NRA is getting beat in many states. According to an analysis by the advocacy group Giffords reported this week in The New York Times, gun control legislation ticked up significantly across the states while gun freedom legislation fell. The rise of new gun control groups that combine resources and grassroots power (like Moms Demand Action) is one reason for the change in dynamics. These new activists advocated for the need for new gun control legislation in the aftermath of the February 2018 Parkland massacre, for instance. But, the weakened state of the NRA is also part of the story.
Based on past experience, the NRA will find its path back to influence. The Butina branch of the multifaceted Mueller investigation, however, represents a more existential threat to the organization. The investigation is a fascinating one on several fronts. Its implications for gun politics in the United States is one of them.
For nearly seven years, I’ve had the great opportunity to regularly fill this space with a column a couple of times a month. The transition of this publication marks the end of my column writing (although my writing for the Times will likely continue in some form). Those seven years have been a consequential period on the issues about which I’ve written the most: LGBTQ rights, partisan politics in Arkansas, U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, racial dynamics in Little Rock and, yes, gun politics. Thanks to all who’ve expressed their appreciation for my writing, as well as those who’ve expressed their dissent. And, thanks to the Times for helping me become a better writer more willing to take risks in expressing my views.