Donations to the National Rifle Association’s political action committee approached $9 million in the first nine months of this year, giving the group its highest tally for the same period in all but one previous election cycle.
The strong figure suggests that despite leadership upheaval and revelations of financial mismanagement, the NRA can still draw support from a committed donor base, at least during a period when Democratic presidential contenders are vowing to tighten gun laws.
In the same Federal Election Commission filings, however, is an indicator that’s not so rosy for the NRA Political Victory Fund (PVF). This year, 56 percent of donors who reported their occupation or job status identified themselves as retired. In 2003, the first year for which complete records are available, only 40 percent of the PAC’s donors were listed as retired.
From 2003 until this year, the shift has been significant: A growing percentage of donors to the PAC are retirees. In part, the numbers reflect broader trends, including growth in the overall retiree population and the tendency of older Americans to be more involved in politics.
Regardless, FEC records show that NRA donors are, as a group, getting older.
“Given the profile of the average gun owner, which would be an older white male and conservative,” said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has studied attitudes toward firearms ownership. “I’m not surprised.”
Other right-leaning PACs are seeing a similar shift. This year, 69 percent of donors to the Senate Conservatives Fund were retired, up from 45 percent in 2014, according to FEC filings. In contrast, the Giffords PAC, which advocates for tougher gun control laws, saw its number of retired donors fall from 47 percent in 2014 to 19 percent this year.
One limitation of The Trace’s review is that PACs need to identify donors only when they give $200 or more in a single year. Through September, 17 percent of the PVF’s haul came from such itemized contributions. The PAC also hasn’t consistently reported its contributors’ employment and occupation information, which committees must make “best efforts” to obtain. Both fields are blank for one-fifth of all itemized 2019 donors. The FEC sent the PVF two letters this year urging it to fill in the missing information. Both times, treasurer Robert G. Owens issued an identical response detailing the NRA’s data collection practices. (At the moment, the FEC doesn’t have enough commissioners to enforce campaign finance laws.)
Haider-Markel, the University of Kansas professor, said the percentage of women owning guns has remained steady since the 1970s and declined among men, chiefly because younger white men are not becoming gun owners as frequently as they once did.
“You don’t have cohort replacement happening in the gun owner population,” he said.
A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that gun ownership was most common among white men 65 and older. The same study surveyed self-identified NRA members, but Pew did not publish age or ethnicity information on respondents who said they belonged to the group.
Nonprofits and political action committees often keep detailed demographic information on their donors. The Trace asked the NRA to discuss the information it collects, but got no response. The group has tried to attract young people with initiatives like the defunct NRA Freestyle, which used the slogan “Fitness. Adventure. Independence.” in its online programming.
The PAC’s strong performance in the first nine months of the 2019-2020 cycle is almost certainly related to the public push — following several mass shootings this summer — for new gun laws, and declarations by Democrats running for president that action is needed to save lives. After Beto O’Rourke made an aggressive pitch for a mandatory assault weapon buyback during the September primary debate, daily donations to the PAC tripled, the Washington Free Beacon found.
“It’s not shocking for various metrics of NRA success, including political fundraising, to shift in the group’s favor when NRA members and gun owners more generally see gun ownership or gun rights as under assault,” said Matthew Lacombe, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College.
The NRA PAC had a record fundraising cycle after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 energized gun control advocacy groups and led President Barack Obama to propose a raft of gun control measures. Through September 2013, the PAC collected $10.2 million, nearly half of what it took in during that midterm cycle. While the $8.9 million haul the group pulled in through September of this year is short of that mark, it’s significantly more than what the PAC has typically pocketed.
Lacombe, who has written about the relationship between gun ownership and social identity, said that in addition to the public focus this year on new gun control proposals, it may be that the news of infighting at the NRA and allegations of financial impropriety by its leadership have spurred donations by some loyal supporters who sense that the gun rights group is in peril.
“Groups that are experiencing some internal discord can come back together in the face of perceived threats,” Lacombe said. “The presence of that threat strengthens the group’s identity.”
The NRA has long stoked a siege mentality in its fundraising and other member appeals, said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York, Cortland, who has written extensively on gun policy. Spitzer said NRA messaging tends to perpetually portray its circumstances as “do or die” and “the most apocalyptic moment we face.”
In columns that ran in the most recent issues of the NRA magazines American Rifleman and America’s 1st Freedom, for instance, group president Carolyn Meadows wrote that, “Law-abiding American gun owners are presently facing the most vicious and broad-based attacks this nation has ever seen on our cherished right to keep and bear arms.”
PAC performance is only one measure of the NRA’s health. The group has in recent years been operating in the red and borrowed against its Fairfax, Virginia, headquarters. Its spending on federal elections dropped to $9.6 million in 2018 from $27 million in 2014, the previous midterm election year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In reporting this article, we tried to contact more than 20 donors who in 2019 either gave to the PAC for the first time or increased their giving. While searching through public records for contact information, we noticed that most of the donors appeared to be in their 70s and 80s, which led us to analyze retiree status in the FEC filings.
We left phone messages for 15 donors, but none were returned. One donor, however, a 70-year-old Indiana resident who gave his first itemized contribution of $1,250 in March and then six more donations through August in increments of $25 to $60, picked up the phone when we called. The man said he’d heard nothing about turmoil at the NRA and had donated because he “did not like what’s going on with the radical left.”