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The NRA Has Been Quiet As The Gun Rights Debate Reignites

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the span of a single week, two mass shootings have given momentum to the push for stricter gun laws. President Biden wants the Senate to ban assault weapons and close loopholes on background checks. And through all of this, one prominent gun rights organization has remained quiet - the National Rifle Association NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak has covered the NRA for years.

Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Why has the NRA been relatively quiet so far about these shootings?

MAK: So the NRA has long held to the strategy that it's best to say very little after a mass shooting. They've made this calculation internally that they can't really win the public relations battle in the emotional aftermath of such an event. For example, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre waited a week before addressing the public following the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, when he said this notable line...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

MAK: So, like so many other times, the NRA has kept a low profile recently. This week, they put out a social media post which says they're, quote, "saddened by this tragic and senseless crime." And they also criticized gun control advocates for politicizing the situation and provided the same statement when we reached out for comment.

SHAPIRO: But the NRA is a very different organization today from 2012. It's kind of been imploding over the last year or two, as you have chronicled. I mean, what's the latest there?

MAK: So over the past couple years, there's been this internal revolt that has seen a number of insiders resigning over what they say is financial malfeasance at this organization. This includes an attempt to hide millions of dollars in lavish perks for executives and inappropriate payouts for those connected to the group's leadership. Sparked in part by this, the New York attorney general launched an investigation. And the results of that probe have led that office to pursue dissolving the NRA, which is registered in New York. And then in January of this year, the NRA declared bankruptcy. The NRA said that this was a tactical maneuver to avoid dissolution and that its finances were actually solid.

SHAPIRO: So its silence right now might be consistent with the past. But when you look at what the organization is like today, do you expect it's going to be less influential in the future?

MAK: Well, the NRA has been a very resilient organization in the past. Its power doesn't come just from money, but from its millions of staunch politically active supporters. So although it's going through an apparent cash crunch, it still has an enormous capacity to mobilize its membership against gun control proposals that are now being considered. And that's what moderate lawmakers on the fence about gun control are really most concerned about, whether they can withstand pressure from the NRA's dedicated base.

SHAPIRO: And what does all of that mean for the Biden administration's efforts to enact gun legislation? Is the NRA so weak that they might not have the impact they would have a decade ago?

MAK: So - right. Earlier this week, Biden called for the banning of assault weapons, the banning of high-capacity magazines and for expanding background checks for commercial gun sales. The key moment, though, in the American gun control debate came after Sandy Hook. After the killings of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at that school around the holiday season in 2012, Congress was unable to muster the political will to expand background checks. That's the most modest of the three ideas Biden is now promoting.

At the time, the NRA helped negotiate gun control legislation and then, when it was finalized, turned around and mobilized its members against it. The idea didn't have 60 votes in the Senate then, and it doesn't appear to have that kind of support now. And the NRA remains powerful enough to keep it that way in the short term, which is why you saw this week a number of gun control groups announce that they would be supporting efforts to end the Senate filibuster.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tim Mak, thanks a lot.

MAK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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