When the Pew Research Center released a detailed report on U.S. gun owners, I knew it wouldn’t be long until the organization which claims to represent all gun owners – the NRA – responded in kind. And the response appeared on the NRA-ILA website which tried to explain how and why Pew’s estimate that the NRA has 14 million members may have been wrong but was actually right.
What Pew did was ask its survey panel, which they claim to be representative of a cross-section of Americans, to indicate whether or not they were members of the NRA. And then extrapolating the ‘yes’ answers against the percentage of Americans which Pew claims own guns, you wind up with 14 million people who say they have joined America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization,’ as the boys in Fairfax like to say.
Now since the NRA itself claims only to have 5 million members, how do we explain that all of a sudden the organization has added 9 million more to its membership rolls? Here’s how the NRA is handling it as of today: “we have millions more Americans who support us and will tell pollsters they are members, even when they are not.” And to underscore this point, the NRA website also linked to a story from The Washington Times (a real, balanced piece of journalism) which states that the Pew report shows that 21% of gun owners had contacted a public official about gun policy at some point in their lives, but only 12% of the nonowners said they did.
Now before everyone in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community gets all hot and bothered about a tidal wave of gun owners out there who are endlessly surging forward to defend their ownership of guns, let me inject a bit of reality into the NRA’s membership claims. In 2015 the organization claims to have received $165 million in dues, which happens to be $10 million less than what they picked up in their biggest year, which was 2013. At the current rate of $40 a year, this works out to slightly more than 4 million members, although there are various multi-year deals which might alter those numbers somewhat.
The other way to estimate the NRA membership is to figure out the circulation of their four magazines – American Rifleman, American Hunter, Shooting Illustrated, America’s Freedom – one of which every dues-paying member receives. But if you take a look at their press kit, you’ll notice that the figure for American Rifleman of 5.5 million refers to ‘total audience,’ which is based not on circulation of the magazine, but on a survey conducted by a firm, GfK, which does consumer research about all kinds of things. In fact, this same company conducts surveys for Pew.
How many members does the NRA really have? As many as they want to have as long as their numbers aren’t totally crazy or based on things they say which simply can’t be true. But if, according to Pew, 9% of gun owners contacted a public official this past year as opposed to 5% of nonowners, then what these numbers tell me is that, pace what the NRA is trumpeting about the political activism of their members, the numbers don’t show that at all.
Remember that Pew reported gun ownership as representing 30% of the adults who answered the poll. Which means that there are 73.5 million who own guns in the United States and 171.7 million who don’t. And if you do the math on the percentages of both groups who contacted a public official, the gun-owning group numbers 6.6 million but the non-owning political activists topped 8.6 mil.
I would be willing to bet that gun owners, by and large, probably reach out more frequently to lawmakers because the NRA has its communication strategies down pat. But if anyone believes that the playing field over gun rights hasn’t become more level since Sandy Hook, they better think again. The NRA is hardly moribund, that’s true, but the other side seems to be keeping pace.