Businesses spurn the NRA, but gun group doesn't much care

The Washington Post

The National Rifle Association is, like AAA or AARP, a bundle of bargains, a smorgasbord of savings on insurance policies, motel rooms, bottles of wine and prescription drugs. But unlike the nation's other interest groups that boast millions of members, the NRA also unabashedly embraces controversy, lunging into battle with fiery rhetoric and no-holds-barred political attacks.

The NRA touts itself with the slogan, "Saving Freedom, Delivering Value," promising its 5 million faithful that "It pays to be a member!" But that piece of the NRA bundle has shrunk in recent days, as a slew of major companies have responded to a groundswell of anti-gun activism by canceling their discounts and other affinity deals with the gun lobby.

The businesses that have cut ties with the NRA include big brand names such as car rental giant Enterprise, Delta Air Lines, MetLife insurance and the bank behind an NRA Visa credit card.

Despite that unprecedented pressure from corporate America, the NRA is unlikely either to lose a significant number of members or to see its influence diminished, according to those who have studied the organization. Supporters and critics alike say the NRA is cushioned against this kind of pushback because its members sign up not for financial gain but for a chance to be part of a cultural vanguard.

"Nobody's joining NRA to get a discount at Hertz," said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who is president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. "Joining NRA is like making a religious commitment; it's a statement about where you stand not just on guns, but on one view of what it means to be an American. It's a powerful symbolic move."

In some ways, the success of the NRA, as with its peers among the nation's largest interest groups, depends on finding and winning over a steady stream of like-minded members.

"The whole package is not that different from AARP or the Sierra Club," said Thomas Holyoke, a political scientist at Fresno State University who studies interest groups. But as the NRA has adopted more absolutist positions against gun regulations and has embraced more radical political language, "the NRA is really becoming the opposite of AAA, which no one joins for their political positions."

All large membership groups are valuable to big business, which craves the organizations' membership lists as reliable sources of potential customers and marketing targets. That creates a symbiotic relationship in which both sides tend to eschew controversy, trying to keep their ties clean and neutral.

Other interest groups have occasionally hit a speed bump of controversy. For example, AARP, the retired people's lobby, suffered through a spate of membership card burnings in 2003, after the organization endorsed a Medicaid bill that some senior citizens argued would do more to help drug companies than provide security for the elderly.

But the NRA has embraced conflict as few other huge membership groups have dared to. And the organization's approach has grown ever more caustic, from NRA leader Wayne LaPierre 's 1995 warning that "jackbooted government thugs" were amassing power to strip gun owners of their constitutional rights, to the late Charlton Heston's scalding address to NRA members in 2000, telling Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore that his firearm would be taken only "from my cold dead hands."

The wave of corporate moves to separate from the NRA following the massacre of high school students in Parkland, Fla., last month is unique in its size, but it is far from the first time businesses have felt compelled to distance themselves from the group.

"The pattern goes like this: A horrific event happens, a corporate player takes a stand and they're praised by the general public and squished like a bug by the NRA and their core following," said Josh Sugarmann, author of a history of the NRA and executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control group. "It remains to be seen if this time is any different. All these companies aren't making these decisions out of any ideological commitment; they're reading the situation and seeing the power of social media."

In the 1980s, some companies decided not to make deals with the NRA for membership benefits because executives or boards didn't want their brands associated with a divisive issue such as the role of firearms in the country. Only after several other banks declined an affiliation with the NRA, the First National Bank of Omaha agreed to sell NRA-branded credit cards, which give NRA members 5 percent back on gas and sporting goods purchases. Now, that bank has pulled out of the deal.

But such decisions don't necessarily damage the NRA's appeal, Sugarmann said: "They're kind of a two-headed monster. They play to their hardcore base and don't care about appealing to the general public, so they don't see a backlash like this as damaging. They view being attacked by the mainstream media as a positive benefit, and their base may look at big business in the same way. On the other hand, they don't want to be a corporate pariah. So they have pressures in both directions."

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. The group issued a statement saying that "the loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world."

As a culture warrior that has mastered the art of advancing its interests through brutal rhetoric and intense tribalism, the NRA, like President Trump, has become a master of gaining and maintaining power with the fervent support of an engaged minority.

But the NRA faces existential pressure as well - a steady decline in the percentage of U.S. households that own firearms and a reversal of fortunes of some major gun manufacturers. In addition, the decisions by Dick's Sporting Goods, Walmart, and Kroger stores not to sell guns to anyone under 21 represent a big blow to an industry that puts a premium on winning over young people as gun owners.

Those challenges mean that one of the NRA's most valuable assets, its membership roll, becomes an ever more important part of its business model. The money's not too bad, either; in one credit card affiliation deal, the NRA got 0.5 percent of all purchases made on the card.

Many of the businesses now distancing themselves from the group likely will return eventually, because that list of 5 million members is just that valuable, Feldman said.

"When I was working on the Hill for NRA, I'd ask congressmen, would you rather have the maximum contribution we can make or a mailing to your district? And it was never a question," the former lobbyist said. "It was one of the greatest lists in the country, and they wanted that access."

For the NRA, the future of firearms in the United States will be determined by how well-organized and vocal gun rights supporters are, not by winning over new members with goodies. The organization is far more devoted to developing cultural affinities - making marketing connections with country music stars, for example - than it is to adding to its menu of discounts.

Former NRA executive vice president Warren Cassidy liked to explain that his organization was different from other interest groups: "You'd get a far better understanding" of the NRA, he once told The Washington Post, "if you just approach us as if we are one of the world's great religions."

For years, the group posted a slogan at the convention booths where it sold insurance policies: "Share the Belief."

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