The National Rifle Association (NRA) and women have long had a tumultuous relationship.
The NRA is interested in keeping the firearms industry profitable, but has had a very difficult time in turning American women into customers. The General Social Survey shows that the percentage of women who own guns has fluctuated between 9% and 14% from 1980 to 2010 (as opposed to between 33% and 52% for men). During that time—and perhaps not coincidentally—the NRA has consistently opposed legislation that would limit domestic abusers’ access to firearms, claiming that efforts in this area could lead to “sweeping and arbitrary infringement on the right to keep and bear arms.”
It wasn’t always this way. When the 1968 Gun Control Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson—establishing prohibited categories of gun purchasers for the first time (domestic abusers under active restraining orders were added to the statute’s list of prohibited purchasers in 1994)—the NRA supported the legislation. Today’s NRA, however, is far more radical and connected to the gun industry. In April, NRA President Jim Porter described the Gun Control Act as “a terrible law” and bragged that it would have been defeated if the NRA had a lobbying arm at the time.
Porter is not the only NRA leader who has demonstrated little regard for keeping guns out of the wrong hands. In 1997, NRA Board Member and Alaska Congressman Don Young co-sponsored H.R. 1009, which sought to repeal [now-deceased] New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg’s amendment to the 1996 Omnibus Appropriations bill. The amendment prohibits individuals from owning/purchasing firearms if they have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Thankfully, Young’s bill went nowhere.
Three years later, the NRA weighed in on an important court case concerning armed abusers. Timothy Joe Emerson, a Texas doctor, was charged with possessing a firearm while subject to a court order prohibiting the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against an intimate partner or child. Under federal law, the protective order made Emerson’s possession of a firearm illegal. Emerson’s wife, Sacha, had requested the temporary restraining order during the course of their divorce proceedings, alleging that he had threatened her and their daughter with a gun. Emerson asked that the indictment be dismissed, arguing that the statute in question was unconstitutional because it violated his right to keep and bear arms. In 2000, when the case was before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the NRA filed an amicus brief, describing the disarming of Emerson as “a radical extension of federal power.”
The NRA was also active in defending domestic abusers in state legislatures. For example, in 2010 the NRA lobbied against Wisconsin Senate bills 380 and 381, which sought to expand the definition of “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence” and “require an individual who is subject to a protective order to appear before a court and reveal all the firearms that he or she owns or possesses.” The NRA argued that law enforcement already had the tools necessary to prosecute these crimes and said the bills would unfairly limit “immunity from prosecution for the laws [said individuals] might be forced to admit violating.”
Then, in 2013, the NRA suddenly changed course by deciding to remain neutral on a series of state bills that dealt with domestic violence. Facing no NRA opposition, lawmakers in Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Vermont passed variations of a bill to prohibit the possession of firearms by those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse and to establish procedures for the removal of abusers’ firearms. Minnesota state Representative Dan Schoen even noted at the time, “The NRA has been really good to work with on this particular issue. It pains me to say [it], but they have been.”
Many observers saw the NRA’s policy shift as an attempt to reach out to women, a demographic it might eventually need to mobilize if it is to keep the gun industry profitable. The challenge here is significant. One NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 65% of women favor stronger gun laws, compared to 44% of men. Another recent poll found that 83% of Republican women in Arizona, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Nevada, Alaska, Virginia and Texas support closing current loopholes by requiring background checks on all gun sales (a policy the NRA opposes). Given these metrics, it’s not surprising that the NRA made another attempt at inclusivity during their most recent annual meeting, conducting the first-annual Women’s New Energy Breakfast and Women’s Leadership Forum Luncheon and Auction. They have also launched the new web series, “NRA Women: Armed and Fabulous.”
But the NRA’s foray into the world of moderate politics did not last long. In June 2014, the president of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, Chris Cox, sent a letter to Senators in opposition to S. 1290, a bill introduced by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. S. 1290 aims to add convicted stalkers to the group of offenders who are barred from owning/purchasing firearms and to expand the current definition of those convicted of domestic violence against “intimate partners” to include those who harm dating partners. [Currently the law is limited to people who are married or co-habitating.] While Klobuchar see S. 1290 as a “common sense bill that would protect victims and keep our families safe,” the NRA argues that the legislation “manipulates emotionally compelling issues such as ‘domestic violence’ and ‘stalking’ simply to cast as wide a net as possible for federal firearm prohibitions.”
The NRA even proffered a hypothetical scenario involving two gay men who could potentially be prohibited from owning firearms “for conviction of simple ‘assault’ arising from a single shoving match.” This was an odd choice of scenarios given that numerous NRA leaders have made homophobic remarks in public, including Ken Blackwell (who has compared homosexuality with incest and polygamy) and Wayne Anthony Ross (who described homosexuals as “degenerates”). NRA leaders have also downplayed the issue of domestic violence, with Ross once musing, “If a guy can’t rape his wife … who’s he gonna rape?” “There wouldn’t be an issue with domestic violence if women would learn to keep their mouth shut,” Ross declared. Then there’s NRA lobbyist Richard D’Alauro, who was charged with misdemeanor assault and endangering the welfare of a child stemming from a 2010 domestic altercation with his wife.
NRA commentary on stalking has been equally offensive. In his letter to Senators, Chris Cox claims that “‘stalking’ offenses do not necessarily include violent or even threatening behavior.” The NRA undoubtedly hopes to obscure research demonstrating that “firearms possession by those who commit stalking…crimes is an indicator of lethality.” Given that stalking victimization affects 1 in 6 women in their lifetime, the NRA will undoubtedly regress even further among women with such rhetoric.
The NRA’s flip-flop on the issue of domestic violence is hardly unique. Their previous course corrections on issues like the Gun Show Loophole and guns in schools have been well-documented. More recently, the NRA flip-flopped on the issue of Open Carry in a matter of mere hours. After a variety of aggressive Open Carry demonstrations spurred controversy around the country, the NRA released a statement criticizing the protests, calling them “scary” and “downright weird.” However, immediate backlash from their base caused the NRA to retract the statement the very next day. Now, suddenly, the NRA tells us, “Unequivocally, we support open carry.”
When it comes to domestic violence, the NRA is once again a slave to the pro-gun movement that it radicalized over the past 40 years. It’s not that Wayne LaPierre & Co. can’t see the demographic writing on the wall. They understand that racism (think NRA Board Member Ted Nugent), homophobia and misogyny will not be a winning political strategy much longer in the United States. But they also believe that there is less money in moderation today given that their typical customer is to the far right of the political spectrum (would-be smart gun dealer Andy Raymond and others have contested this marketing strategy, however).
At what point will the NRA finally be forced to support policies that protect women; not half-heartedly but earnestly? It’s difficult to say, but when it comes to the safety of American women, much hangs in the balance.