Barack Obama was very good for the NRA.
In 2015, about two years before his term ended, we estimated that Obama’s presidency had boosted the gun industry’s bottom line by about $9 billion. This wasn’t all a function of Obama himself; gun ownership has been on an upward trend for some time. But Obama’s focus on expanding background checks in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012 spurred a big spike in gun sales. Over the course of his presidency, Americans spent about $17 billion on ammunition. It was a boom time.
It seemed likely that the boom time would continue if Hillary Clinton was elected. Clinton joined Obama’s call for new gun controls, however modest, meaning that the NRA would still have someone in the White House to push back against. The NRA gets a lot of funding from gun companies, but also relies on membership fees and contributions from individuals to keep going. A Clinton presidency meant that the NRA’s base could still be energized to worry about the threat of the government cracking down on gun ownership (however valid that threat was in an era when Republicans controlled Congress).
But then Clinton lost. This was ostensibly good news for the organization, since it meant that even that minor threat to new gun controls was gone. But it also meant that there was no one to push back against.
Or did it? At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, NRA head Wayne LaPierre gave a remarkable speech, in which he offered up a vast, loosely aggregated opposition which was the new threat for gun owners to fear: “leftists,” anarchists, criminals and, of course, “national media machine.”
“For the first time, we also face an enemy utterly dedicated to destroy not just our country, but also Western civilization,” he said — not of foreign invasion, but of liberals and the media.
Since the organization has created a number of videos reinforcing the identity of the NRA’s new enemy. The most infamous was one from commentator Dana Loesch, called “Violence of Lies.”
The organization and its online television network, NRATV, has also made ads specifically targeting media outlets, including The Washington Post and, this week, The New York Times.
On Twitter, the transition between enemies is fairly obvious. Prior to the election, @NRA and @NRATV hammered Hillary Clinton. After, more tweets about the media, the left and “violence” in general.
But another bit of data makes clear why those new enemies have been singled out: To raise money. The data above excludes Twitter ads bought by @NRATV. When we include those tweets posted through Twitter’s ad system — which are often variations on the same message targeting different audiences — the metrics shift.
The NRA is spending money to pitch the media in particular as a threat to gun owners.
Data from the FBI gives us a hint of why. Since January 2009, when Obama took office, 46 of the first seven months of the year have seen increases over the prior year’s gun sales, as roughly measured by the number of federal background checks performed. (This isn’t a precise metric, but it’s a decent estimate.) That means that, in 17 of those months, there were fewer background checks relative to that month the year before.
Six of those 17 declines happened over the first seven months of 2017.
Part of this is certainly that the first seven months of 2016 saw a big increase in background checks relative to 2015, itself in part a function of the looming threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency. But even after the big increases in 2013 that followed the Sandy Hook shooting (and Obama’s reelection), sales were up in March of 2014 relative to the prior year.
The goal of the NRA isn’t directly to affect gun sales, but there’s a clearly a correlation between how urgently people want to buy guns and how urgently they feel the need to give to LaPierre’s group.
That means that there needs to be a threat that necessitates both gun sales and NRA memberships. With Obama gone and Clinton back home in Chappaqua, that role is now filled by the “violent left” and the media. Since the violent left is a bit nebulous, it seems that the media will enjoy the majority of the NRA’s focus.