Civil Liberties

3D Guns May Sideline the NRA, But Not Because It's Funded by Gun Makers


3D-printed Liberator handgun
Defense Distributed

Since 3D-printed guns first emerged on the scene, clearly promising to render gun regulation more irrelevant than a mandatory missionary-position law in a world full of blackout curtains, scribblers phobic about things that go BANG! have found solace in one small hope: At least it'll cripple the National Rifle Association! Their hopes rest on the repeated assertion that the NRA is industry-funded, and DIY-gunmaking will deprive nasty Merchants of Death™ of their customers, so then they won't prop-up their puppet astroturf organization. The NRA may or may not lose relevance with the advance of technology, but it won't be because of bogus assertions that it's a front group for the gun industry, no matter how often the mantra is chanted.

The most recent assertion of the delusional meme comes from Rob Enderle at TGDaily, who wrote:

The NRA, which is pretty rabid about any form of gun control, is silent on this issue largely because it is funded by gun manufacturers who really don't want people printing copies of their product rather than buying one. 

Josh Sager at Salon engaged in the same sort of wishful thinking at Salon:

Despite its claim to be a sportsmen's civil rights group, the NRA is funded in large part by gun manufacturers, whose motives and goals don't always overlap with those of the organization's membership.

And then there's Adam L. Penenberg at PandoDaily who wrote back in January:

Does the NRA represent the views of its 4 million members, or is it a front for the $12 billion gun industry comprised of manufacturers, firearms dealers, and ammunition makers, whose interests may diverge from those of the common member? Let's follow the money.

The problem with all of these lazy assertions is that they're not true. They appear, really, to be exercises in wishful thinking by people who can't believe so many Americans could support and fund a civil liberties organization with views so opposed to those of right-thinking scribblers.

Right-thinking scribblers who don't bother to do any fact-checking, that is. In fact, there's a handy place they can investigate their thesis: The Annenberg Public Policy Center's (not part of the right-wing conspiracy, according to the latest memo). Way back on January 15, debunked the NRA-as-a-tool-of-the-gun-industry nonsense:

In arguing that the NRA "represents gun manufacturers" and not "gun owners anymore," Sen. Christopher Murphy discounted NRA membership dues as "less than half" of NRA funding and instead elaborated on how the NRA makes "tens of millions of dollars off of the purchases of guns." He said, "They pay their salaries off of these gun purchases."

But gun customers voluntarily decide if they want to contribute to NRA organizations when they purchase a gun, just as they voluntarily decide to join the NRA and pay dues. And much of the contributions made during gun sales is used to fund community programs, such as gun safety, law enforcement training and hunter education — not salaries.

The piece went on to point out:

The NRA Foundation and the NRA Institute of Legislative Action each operate separate fundraising programs that allow gun customers at participating gun stores to "round up" the purchase price to the nearest dollar as a contribution. Some customers may be asked instead, depending on the company making the sale, to "add a buck for shooting's future" — much in the same way that some food stores ask for small donations to fight cancer or hunger when customers check out. …

The NRA Foundation's 990 form filed with the IRS for 2010 shows it raised nearly $23.4 million in total revenue and provided more than 2,200 in grants for community programs for hunters, competitive shooters, gun collectors, law enforcement, and women and youth groups, including the Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs. In all, $21.2 million went for grants — most of it (nearly $12.6 million) to the NRA itself for "[e]ducation, training, range development, youth programs, [and] equipment," while the rest went to the community programs and groups. The NRA Foundation has no staff and pays no salaries.

The NRA-ILA, which is the lobbying arm of the NRA, operates a "round-up" program with fewer participating companies, although it has been in existence for longer. Its program was the brainchild of gun store owner Larry Potterfield, the founder and CEO of Midway USA in Missouri. In a video on his website, Potterfield says he started the program in 1992 and the money raised from his customers goes into the "Endowment for the Protection of the Second Amendment." A few other companies have since joined the program, but Midway customers are still the largest contributors by far. In a Dec. 7, 2012, press release, the company said its customers have donated $7.6 million to the NRA lobbying group since 1992. The program has a balance of nearly $9.5 million, including contributions from gun customers at other stores, the press release says.

The National Rifle Association itself, independent of the educational foundation and the lobbying group, collected almost half of its $227 million in revenues in 2010 from membership dues and and program fees.

Keep in mind that the organization has five million members. The American Civil Liberties Union, by contrast, the preeminent civil liberties organization in the country, has around 500,000 members. That's not to belittle the ACLU—it does excellent work (and some things with which I strongly disagree, as does the NRA)—but it's not that hard to raise hundreds of millions of dollars when you have millions of members.

The NRA does get industry contributions, but points out that it's on the order of a million bucks here and there. It's a membership-driven organization, whether or not other people like what those members support.

But all of these articles sighing hopefully over the eventual death of the NRA have another thing in common: Recognition that 3D printing is making the old policy arguments pointless by making the manufacture and ownership of guns a private activity that the law can't touch. This is likely going to be true of all physical objects. As TGDaily's Enderle writes, "the more folks try to make printing guns illegal the more creative ways 3D printer users will likely come up with to get around or actively avoid the law."

He adds, "This might actually end up accelerating the move away from traditionally purchased guns because you could do things like custom design them…" Again, this could well be true of manufacturing all sorts of items, turning the creation of smaller physical objects into a DIY activity, with design and larger, more-complex manufacturing retaining a commercial aspect.

Why is the NRA "silent" on this issue? I'm not sure that it is—I've repeatedly discussed the issue on NRA News's Cam & Co., and they've linked to my pieces on the issue along with other issues. But I do think the organization, along with almost everybody else, has been blindsided by a fast-evolving phenomenon that's less than a year old. The first 3D-printed Liberator was fired in the spring of this year.

And this fast technological development might actually cause the NRA to fade away, at least in its political-lobbying persona. (Its original character as an educational organization likely has a future no matter what.) After all, when an activity slips beyond the reach of policy, there's no reason to engage in or fund policy debates. If laws and regulations are rendered irrelevant, there's no incentive to expend resources on changing them.

But then, the same can be said of the gun control groups.