Michael doesn’t know where to turn for unbiased information.
The 32-year-old Air Force veteran ― a self-described “political centrist” ― says he avoids outlets like Fox News and Breitbart because they’re “dripping with bias.” He worries that the divisiveness in this country has made it impossible to get accurate information on the issues he cares about.
Instead, Michael turns to one source that has been unwavering in its stances: the National Rifle Association.
Michael ― one of several NRA members who asked that HuffPost not use their last names for this article, to avoid harassment ― cares about his Second Amendment rights and the politicians who defend them, even though he scoffs at the NRA’s “fire and brimstone” approach to defending guns.
That’s why he donated $50 to the NRA on top of his annual membership dues after he saw news of the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and wounded hundreds of others.
“I believe that the NRA has my interests in mind regarding my Second Amendment rights,” Michael, who lives in Washington state, told HuffPost. “You could say I’m a bit of a rights nut. I am a member of the NRA as well as the [American Civil Liberties Union].”
He’s not alone. Tens of thousands of individual donors give millions of dollars to the NRA’s political action committee each year ― and in the days and months after a mass shooting, those donations can skyrocket. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the NRA’s political action committee raised $2.7 million in just a few months, a 350 percent increase over the same period the year before. Other gun advocacy groups, like the LGBTQ-friendly organization Pink Pistols, saw surges in membership after the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a year later.
It’s unclear exactly how much the NRA has raised in donations or new membership dues after the shooting in Vegas. The organization didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on this story. But individuals who responded to HuffPost’s request for interviews said they donated anywhere between $30 and $300 to the NRA. Some even bought rifles, reflecting gun industry trends in the wake of mass shootings.
Steadfast individual donors like Michael allow the NRA to shell out millions on the politicians whom they see as defenders of gun rights. The group unloaded $54 million in outside spending in 2016, and another $839,215 directly to candidates during the election cycle, according to The New York Times. For their part, members get a graded list of politicians to vote for, with ratings based on their voting histories and their plans to help gun owners.
That’s enough for some folks. Several people we spoke with were wary of the NRA’s power to influence politicians ― and boy, does the NRA have power to influence politicians ― but they were more concerned about efforts to make illegal the guns they already own. Every time there’s a mass shooting and a national conversation about gun control, they say, they worry that even a small law might get passed and lead to a snowball effect.
“I rejoined [the NRA] after the Las Vegas shooting because the assault on the Constitution has already begun, and I want to make sure the people saying what I believe have the funding they need,” said Spencer, 37, from Columbus, Ohio.
He and others agree that America has a mass shooting problem ― but they say curbing gun violence won’t come from curbing gun ownership.
Spencer is fine with the idea of banning bump stocks ― legal attachments that essentially allow semi-automatic rifles to gain near-automatic fire ― and he’d be OK with the government keeping databases on people prone to “violent outbursts” or drug use. (Few liberals have called for the latter.) The majority of NRA members, in fact, may well support background checks on all gun purchases, whether they happen at stores or shows.
“There is definitely room for debate around gun control,” said Mark from Arizona, who renewed his membership after the Vegas shooting and plans to donate an additional $100 to the NRA. “However, the problem is that the left continues to bring up solutions such as Australia... I think removing of firearms does reduce (not eliminate) firearm-related deaths. However, it also removes the ability for people to defend themselves legally.”
Michael said a donation to the NRA is like a donation to the Red Cross after a disaster. It’s easier to send money to the most well-known name than to research smaller individual organizations, he said, even if the smaller groups can offer a better sense of how the money will be used.
“In a disaster I donate to the Red Cross because I didn’t want to do the research to figure out where this money should go,” he told HuffPost. “I have enough trust in the name Red Cross to know they’d do it the right way. That’s how I feel the NRA works for me.”
“It’s probably a lack of research on my part,” he went on. “But people who are against guns are very ill-educated on the subject, too. I feel like they’re very fervent about nobody having them, and taking rights away as opposed to just having reasonable limitations on them.”