But several observers said the NRA’s methods reflect a sophistication and ingenuity that is largely unrivaled outside of major national presidential campaigns. While the organization took great umbrage in December when a newspaper published the names and addresses of gun owners in two New York counties, the group for years as been gathering similar information via the same public records as a matter of course.
Complementing this practice is the mining of data on the thousands who take gun safety classes from NRA-certified instructors. Arulanandam said there are 97,000 of them, a figure that impressed Quinn as a larger “army of organizers” than Obama had.
In some states, those ranks are propelled by laws that specify that taking classes from NRA-certified instructors in order to obtain permits or licenses. In 2011, for instance, the Iowa Legislature added such a provision.
“Previously there was no reference to the National Rifle Association in the Iowa code,” Loder said. “Before, it would have been a course offered by the local sheriff’s office.”
The NRA’s dominance in the safety class realm is an obvious public relations boon for the group, but it predates the organization’s political activism by nearly a century. The group was founded, in fact, to improve marksmanship and teach safe, effective shooting, said NRA-certified senior trainer Mike Weisser, owner of a gun store in Ware, Massachusetts.
Yet nowadays those classes are also an important way of adding information about gun owners to the database, Weisser said.
“After people take a class, then you as an instructor can send all their names to Washington and you get credit for that,” Weisser said. “If you can show you’ve taught enough classes, you can move up in the hierarchy as an NRA trainer.”
Moving up in the hierarchy can mean being licensed to teach more types of gun safety classes and being able to charge more, he said.
“If I send the class roster in, the NRA starts sending information to these people to either join the NRA or to support NRA positions,” he said. “In many of the classes, at some point, somebody will get up to give a pitch to join the NRA. Most trainers will also hand out the member application for NRA.”
Most of these activities aim to convert gun owners into dues-paying NRA members or contributors to the NRA’s political action committee, but Feldman said a parallel motive is to maintain a network. Political operatives who understand the new science of voter modeling regard gun ownership as a key predictor of someone’s politics regardless of whether they are NRA members, and the NRA uses those non-members to extend its influence by finding just the right language and tone to speak to them, Quinn said.
Jon Bond, co-founder of the powerhouse Manhattan ad firm Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners, said it is an important reason why alternative gun-related organizations are at a huge disadvantage. Bond and his wife co-founded a new anti-violence group called Evolve to appeal to people who believe both sides of the debate are too extreme.
Bond views the NRA’s grip, derived from its sophisticated data operation, as perhaps the biggest challenge to anyone else effectively influencing the political conversation.
The data “gives the NRA more power,” Bond said. “It’s valuable politically because what it does is, it extends the reach of its political leverage beyond NRA members. They have gun owners, not just NRA members. There’s multiple purposes for it.”
While the NRA’s influence on Congress is most often the media’s focus, the sort of microtargeting the group can do is at least as powerful in state capitals. A case in point was the successful effort to get Washington state Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Republican from Walla Walla, to remove her name from co-sponsorship of a background check bill in March.
Walsh said she was motivated by the Sandy Hook shooting to sign on to the measure, but was then deluged by more than 1,200 letters and calls from angry constituents. While many of them were from declared NRA members, she said, lots of them were from people who specified they weren’t with the NRA but had been alerted by the group to the pending bill.
“They know quite a bit on that level about people in my district,” said Walsh, who decided the bill had its own loophole problems and wouldn’t reduce gun violence. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that they stay ahead of the game and that they put their opinions in front of” non-members who agree with them.
The NRA used the specter of a national gun registry to great effect in the debate over the Manchin-Toomey background check bill that failed last spring. Even though the bill explicitly prohibited the federal government from creating such a database, it was a talking point that senators who opposed the measure repeatedly cited.
Yet there does not seem to be the same concern among gun owners about the NRA’s own efforts to amass the same information.
“It’s probably partially true that people don’t know the information is being collected,” said Feldman, “but but even if they don’t know it, they probably won’t care because the NRA is not part of the government.”