Taking Over the NRA

February 4, 2013

There’s an episode of The West Wing—“The Portland Trip”—in which Republican congressman Matt Skinner quips to presidential aide Josh Lyman, “I never understood why you gun control people don’t all join the NRA. They’ve got two million members, you bring three million to the next meeting, call a vote. ‘All those in favor of tossing guns?’ Bam. Move on.”

Skinner isn’t exactly proposing direct action, but the president’s staff clearly consider this sort of activist politics beneath them. Josh is dismissive not, it seems to me, because it’s a bad idea, but simply because it’s not the way establishment liberals do things. “It’s a heck of a strategy, Matt,” he says. “I’ll bring that up at a meeting.”

As American started talking seriously about gun control in the weeks after December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this scene played over and over in my head. What if a lobbying organization like the National Rifle Association could be made responsive to the public—or at least to those who care enough about its issue to join whether they agree with its current political stances or not? At the very least, this fictional congressman had a more creative approach to gun control activism than the ineffective assault weapons bans championed by many Democratic legislators.

If the NRA is any kind of democracy, it’s representative rather than direct, so I started looking into how the NRA’s Board of Directors is elected. While the Association’s policies regarding elections aren’t available online, you can find blogs where members gripe about the system’s shortcomings and occasionally describe it in some detail. I was intrigued enough to write to the NRA and ask for a copy of their bylaws, which they were kind enough to mail me.

My conclusion is that Skinner’s idea wouldn’t work. Even if you could persuade three million—or five million, or ten million—progressives to join the NRA, the organization’s bylaws ensure they couldn’t take it over. Aaron Sorkin frequently says in interviews he can “write about people who are smarter than I am and know more than I do, and I am able to do that simply by being tutored almost phonetically, sometimes.” Much of what passes for intelligence among his characters is merely cleverness. It would not be difficult for an actual Republican congressman to understand that the NRA can resist conquest by “gun control people.” For the rest of us, however, here’s how it works:

In addition to a fairly typical clause offering membership only to those “who subscribe… to the objectives and purposes of the Association,” the bylaws bar new members from voting unless they purchase a “Life Membership,” currently available for $1000. Article III, section 6, item e, part 1 states that only “lifetime members and annual members with five or more consecutive years of membership… who have attained the age of 18 years and who are citizens of the United States of American shall be entitled to a vote” when electing Directors.

The bylaws also prescribe the process by which aspiring Directors of the NRA get their names on the ballot. Most are nominated by a Nominating Committee (on which Mother Jones journalist Frank Smyth has some interesting reporting) appointed by the Board of Directors and thus unlikely to rock the boat. Alternately, a candidate may be placed on the ballot by a petition of a mere 250 signatures of members eligible to vote.

According to NRA member Jeff Knox, this petition process was instituted in 1977 as part of “a major member revolt at the annual meeting in Cincinnati [in which] a more politically aggressive faction grabbed the reigns of the organization.” As Rick Perlstein writes, it was in this coup that the NRA became more concerned with opposing gun control than with outdoor sports. Making the NRA more democratic by introducing petitions was a way to keep it accountable to a politically involved membership.

Now, though, the NRA’s membership is in favor of substantially more gun control than their leadership, even if it isn’t flooded with three million “gun control people”; 74% of NRA members support background checks for all gun purchases. There are a number of reasons why the NRA’s leadership doesn’t reflect membership opinion, but among them is surely that, according to Knox and other members, only 7% of eligible members vote. (This number is probably low, since it’s likely that many of the NRA’s Life Members are dead, but it’s still probable that only a minority of eligible members vote.) The shortest path to the NRA becoming a more moderate organization might be simply for moderates to run for the Board of Directors—by petition if necessary—and for other moderates to vote for them. The “hardliners” who made the NRA what it is today may have also left a way out.