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Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 11:35 GMT
Analysis: What is the NRA?
Charlton Heston with children on the cover of American Rifleman
American Rifleman: Charlton Heston media offensive
The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) may not be the biggest single issue pressure group in the United States - but it is arguably the most formidable.

Counting on around 2.8 million members, the NRA's campaigning to defend the right to bear firearms reaches into every facet of American public life, from leafleting neighbourhoods to an awesome political offensive in Washington's corridors of power.

Founded in 1871, the NRA is the largest of at least 13 pro-gun groups across America.

Its campaigns rely on the disputed meaning of the second amendment of the American Constitution and its members contribute an estimated $100m every year.

Hollywood actor Charlton Heston, star of Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, is the current president.

He took office pledging to see a pro-gun president in the White House and to raise a 100m war chest.

One Heston plan is to teach American children "what the right to bear arms really means for their culture and country."

NRA: Political heavyweight
Founded 1871
2.8 million members
Seven Capitol Hill lobbyists
$4m donated to 1998 party candidates
232 pro-NRA members of Congress
Mobilises grassroots campaigns
One of its most famous members, former President George Bush, resigned after NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, writing in a fundraising letter, described federal law enforcement officials as "jack-booted government thugs".

Despite this gaffe, the organisation is known for its astute media offensives which includes prominent advertising in major pubications.

In April 1999, the NRA showed just how quickly it could react in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, knowing that its Denver conference would be in the spotlight.

In a letter to members, Charlton Heston asked for "patience, prayers and presence" as he announced the NRA had cancelled many traditional events including a members' banquet.

"Our spirits must endure this terrible suffering together, and so must the freedoms that bring us together," he wrote. "We must stand in sombre but unshakeable unity, even in this time of anguish."

Education and training

The NRA provides gun education and training.
Eddie Eagle, the NRA youth safety programme
Youth programme: NRA accepts children as members
The "Eddie Eagle" programme for children "neither offers nor asks for any value judgement concerning firearms," the NRA says.

"Like swimming pools, electrical outlets, matchbooks and household poisons, they are treated simply as a fact of everyday life."

Other programmes include everything from basic firearm handling to competition standard shooting, hunter's skills and gun-smithing.

The NRA also runs defence programmes, reminding members that three out of four American women will be victims of violent crime at some time in their lives.

The NRA backs tough punishments for firearms-related crimes, including "three-strikes-and-your-out" mandatory sentences and no early releases for violent offenders.

But it is in the political field where the NRA is a force to be reckoned with.

Lobbying

According to its own figures, the NRA devoted an estimated $4m to direct campaign donations in the 1998 elections, including what it described as "the most aggressive grassroots operation in NRA history".

Observers estimated its 1995 lobbying budget at around $30m.


When gunmakers are responsible for criminal acts and no-one is responsible for OJ Simpson's acts, something is wrong

Charlton Heston
In 1996 the NRA's "Political Victory Fund" was involved in 313 campaigns for the House and Senate, seeing 232 pro-gun members elected.

That figure was bettered in 1998 when the NRA succeeded in seeing 247 preferred candidates elected out of 310 races.

In 1998 the NRA endorsed more than 2750 state house candidates and claimed an 83% electoral success rate. A further 22 out of 28 NRA-backed governors took office.

On Capitol Hill itself there are seven full-time lobbyists targeting any legislation that may infringe on the rights of the gun lobby.

Most of these actions are focused on the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

The massive operation to defend the amendment includes grassroots campaigns where members learn how to organise local campaigns, run a media offensive and appoint local election co-ordinators.

While the amendment is the focus of much debate, one former Supreme Court Chief Justice, Warren Berger, had a clear view of it and the way it was being used by the gun lobby.

The amendment, said Chief Justice Berger, "is the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American people by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime".

America and the gun

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