In August 1871, National Rifle Association co-founder William C. Church, a prominent journalist who served as a colonel in the Union Army, published an article in the Army and Navy Journal explaining why the country needed a gun club “to promote and encourage rifle-shooting on a scientific basis.” After the group was granted a charter, its national headquarters displayed its original motto: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.”
Church’s hope to inspire a culture of marksmanship in the North guided the NRA for much of its early history: In its first century, The Trace’s Mike Spies detailed in a 2019 investigation, the NRA’s primary concerns were hunting, firearms education, and gun safety; in 1944, it began operating as a “social welfare organization,” or a 501(c)(4), granted a specific tax status for its programs in support of the common good. But about three decades after it gained that status, the organization underwent a massive transformation, veering sharply from its original mission and elbowing into politics.
The Trace’s Will Van Sant reported this week that, since 2014, the gun group’s spending on education and training dropped 77 percent. Financial gifts from the NRA Foundation, a partner nonprofit that awards grants to law enforcement, gun clubs, and school shooting programs, has also plummeted, going from a 2019 peak of $16.8 million to $7 million in 2021, the last year for which numbers are available.
The less explicitly political activities that the NRA has disinvested from have historically boosted the group’s brand and sustained its soft power apparatus, a diffuse network of entities that includes gun ranges, Boy Scouts Councils, and 4H Clubs. The effect of the downsizing is obvious: The NRA’s soft power is disappearing. Take Eddie Eagle, its ubiquitous (and ineffective) child-focused gun safety curriculum. Eddie Eagle has been one of the gun group’s flagship education programs since the late 1980s, and a potent political tool. And though the program still frequently makes headlines, documents obtained by The Daily Beast in 2021 showed that as the NRA slashed funding for “safety, training & education,” the program’s participation and reach plunged.
It’s one symptom of larger crises at the NRA — dwindling revenue and membership, expensive legal battles, reputational damage — that could exacerbate existing issues, said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at The Ohio State University who has studied NRA finances. “When you lose resources, you lose members,” he told Van Sant, “and when you lose members, you lose resources.”
In the vacuum, other groups are eager to fill the NRA’s void. The U.S. Concealed Carry Association has grown considerably in recent years, and its founders acknowledged to NPR that they are competing directly with the NRA, with altered branding, educational offerings, and legal protection for members. In 2021, USCCA started a super PAC, and this year it established a 501(c)(4).
Phil Journey, a former NRA board member and a longtime shooting instructor at a Kansas 4H Club, lamented that shooting programs for young people have seen their funding dry up in recent years. “Introducing kids to shooting sports is fundamental to bringing young people into the fold,” he said. “And in 20 or 30 years, we will find ourselves in a political wilderness, without any support.”
From Our Team
A roundup of stories published by The Trace this week.
The group is slowly abandoning its original mission to teach Americans how to handle guns. Spending on these programs has dropped 77 percent in less than a decade. Read more →
Leaders in San Diego, Oakland, and San Francisco hope the effort will incentivize better practices across the gun industry. Read more →
Darnell Lane was convicted of shooting and killing another man. Now, he’s helping his peers break generational cycles of violence. Read more →
Samantha Storey, an award-winning New York Times alum, joined The Trace as managing editor. Former Trace staffer Brian Freskos rejoined the organization in the role of news editor. Read more →
What to Know This Week
The deadliest mass shootings have been perpetrated with AR-15-style rifles, and their use is becoming more common. The destructive power of these weapons is often shielded from the public — but a disturbing new collection of photographs, videos, and oral histories exposes the carnage these firearms leave behind. [The Washington Post] Warning: This post is extremely graphic. We are sharing it for the same reason the Post published it, but some may find it distressing.
A novel and alarming type of violent extremism is gaining prominence in the U.S., according to law enforcement officials and political scientists. Deemed “grab-bag radicals,” these violent extremists — including actors like the Club Q mass shooter — tend to eschew firm creeds and instead pull from a hodgepodge of marginalized beliefs, no matter how divergent, to support their particular personal grievances. [Reuters]
Rounds produced at an Army ammunition plant in Independence, Missouri, have been tied to at least a dozen mass shootings involving AR-15-style weapons — including the 2018 attack in Parkland, Florida, and the massacre last year in Uvalde, Texas. [The New York Times]
Democratic Representatives Joaquin Castro of Texas, Dan Goldman of New York, and Mike Thompson of California, chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention task force, introduced legislation to curb trafficking of U.S.-produced guns and ammunition across the southern border. [CBS]
In Indianapolis, gun homicides are up significantly compared to a decade and a half ago; accidental shootings, public school punishments over guns, and “road rage” shootings have grown in recent years, too. But this crisis goes beyond the numbers: Residents across the city experience grief, resilience, and fear in the wake of each shooting. [Indianapolis Star]
People who survived the January mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, but sustained no physical injuries are frustrated that money raised in a million-dollar donation campaign went only to those who were wounded or families of the deceased. They’re dealing with lingering psychological trauma without the recognition that they, too, were victims. [Los Angeles Times]
Robert Earl Tucker Jr. was declared a danger to himself and others during an involuntary commitment a decade ago. His successful fight to get his gun back showcased the limits of Louisiana’s gun laws. [The Advocate]
The Baltimore Police Department disbanded its plainclothes gun squad in 2017 after a high-profile corruption scandal. Two recent police shootings involving the latest iteration of the gun unit raise renewed concern about members of the patrol escalating otherwise-peaceful encounters. [Associated Press]
In his new book “Gun Country,” on the emergence of American gun culture, historian Andrew C. McKevitt chronicles how firearms transformed from a commodity as unglamorous as washing machines into symbols of ideological principles and identity. [The Washington Post/UNC Press]
Jason Ogbomoh, 25, didn’t mind skipping lunch — if he noticed one of his students wasn’t eating, the computer science teacher was quick to offer up his own meal. Ogbomoh, better known at Marietta Middle School as “Mr. O,” was shot and killed in Atlanta last weekend. He was the kind of educator who made kids smile the second he walked through the door, who challenged attendees at the school Sneaker Ball to dance battles even though his leg was in a boot. Ogbomoh “went after everything with all his might,” a friend told 11Alive, pursuing certifications and a master’s degree, yet “still had something left for the kids.” “He was the type of teacher that every parent would want their child to have,” Marietta’s principal said, “and that every student wanted in our building.”
“It’s her job to do this: After a student dies, she follows in their footsteps, lacing up sneakers, pursuing their class schedule, comforting their friends and directing people to mental health services as needed. … Educators often feel they are charged with keeping students alive, not just instructing them. To prevent the trauma, and respond to it when they can’t, schools are racing to innovate.” [The Washington Post]
“Just as [with] a ship or aircraft, if there is an accident, the survivors would also be affected by it. The survivors were scared and mentally hurt.”
— Sam, a witness to the January mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, on psychologically injured victims being left out of a fundraising campaign for victims, to the Los Angeles Times