An American flag with names on it honoring people who died at the Sandy Hook shooting. There are also stuffed animals near the flag.

Ron Frank/Shutterstock

Gun Control

Ron Frank/Shutterstock

The NRA Has a Dangerous Ally in Newtown


The National Shooting Sports Foundation is one of the most powerful arms of the gun lobby. It's been successful in blocking gun control laws and preventing Sandy Hook families from getting justice.



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Every day, I drive past Sandy Hook Elementary School, where my nephew hid in a closet during the horrific school massacre that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults ten years ago—and where my younger daughter will be attending kindergarten in the fall. Just a few short miles away sits a 20,000-square-foot neocolonial commercial building, with no identifying signs. It’s the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a crouching, conspicuous giant perched in a village, asserting: “I’m not what you think I am, don’t look this way.” Locals know, however, that in that building, right here in Newtown, Connecticut, sits one of the most powerful headquarters of the gun lobby, a nauseating fixture of my morning drive to and from Sandy Hook. The NSSF has done everything in its power to prevent Sandy Hook families from finding accountability and fighting for change.

Nearly everything about the organization, including its name, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, attempts to deflect attention from what it really is. After all, sports would appear to be benign—they are fun, healthy, social activities; good “sportsmanship” conveys fairness, collaborative team-playing, and congeniality. But poke around the NSSF website and you’ll see that the organization is only peripherally focused on “shooting” sports; what they really are is a pro-gun lobby with their own political action committee (PAC) and Legislative Action Center. 

At least, that’s what they are now. Until 2012, the NSSF merely dabbled in lobbying, with an almost immaterial annual expenditure of $120,000 per year and an average of about $450,000 per year between 2009 and 2012. But the year that followed the Sandy Hook massacre, the NSSF’s lobbying budget shot up to $2.5 million and continued to increase over the next several years until, by 2019, it was outspending the National Rifle Association. In 2020, the NSSF donated to the campaigns of 162 United States House candidates and 21 Senate candidates and paid its CEO a salary of over $600,000.

These numbers are astounding, not least of all considering where the NSSF is headquartered. The fact that a school shooting this horrific would lead to a period of tremendous economic growth for a pro-gun lobby is hard to make sense of—and what’s worse: The NSSF has used this financial boon to actively fight every attempt at gun safety legislation since the Sandy Hook shooting. At the same time, they have sanitized their public image by winning millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded federal grants for its own gun safety program. But NSSF isn’t a household name like the NRA.

Dr. Robert Spitzer, the author of The Politics of Gun Control, explained in an email to me that the NSSF’s political influence outside of the gun community is considered to be quite limited. The organization is technically a trade association, which may be why they appear to fly under the radar. The NSSF primarily “does the NRA’s bidding,” Spitzer noted, “especially in political matters.” And there’s the rub. They are doing the NRA’s bidding with millions of dollars per year on lobbying alone. 

***

The NSSF’s presence in Newtown feels personal for the residents here, the organization exploiting an unspeakable, unprecedented tragedy for profit. Then again, this is the gun industry: Every time there is a mass shooting in this country, sales of assault weapons skyrocket, and the gun lobby proves time and again—even and especially after the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas, at Robb Elementary—that they will do anything to protect their profits. The NSSF even went so far as to file suit against the governor and state lawmakers when Connecticut passed a gun violence-prevention bill four months after Sandy Hook. More distressing still, the organization celebrated Remington Arms, the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15 used by the Sandy Hook Elementary murderer Adam Lanza.

Just a few weeks following the Sandy Hook massacre, the NSSF invited Remington and its Bushmaster brand to be exhibitors at its annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas. The event drew 62,000 attendees. For the next several years, Remington continued to be an influential member of the NSSF. In 2017, the organization announced they were “thrilled to have this historic company come on board” as the Presenting Sponsor of the NSSF’s inaugural National Shooting Sports Month.

Not only is this relationship between the Newtown-based NSSF and Remington Arms offensive because of the direct link to Sandy Hook; it is part of a longstanding and calculated rhetorical effort to legitimize assault weapons and the companies that manufacture them. The NSSF doesn’t just represent the political interests of the arms industry with sponsorship, trade shows, alliances, and lobbying expenditures. It has actually led the charge in redefining the assault weapons preferred by perpetrators of mass shootings as “modern sports rifles.” The campaign is deceitful, dangerous, and it falls right into the revenue goals of arms manufacturers. 

Names are important; they have historical roots and descriptive features. They can also be used as powerful tools, especially when they are misnomers, which is exactly what a “modern sporting rifle” is. The term was coined by the NSSF to describe today’s semi-automatic rifle designs, which includes the AR-15 and its offspring used by Adam Lanza and, just weeks ago, the one used by Salvador Rolando Ramos in Uvalde, Texas. These rifles, which, like fully automatic rifles, accept detachable magazines, are in fact defined as assault weapons by law because of their historical purpose and functionality. In defending its campaign to rebrand these weapons as “modern sporting rifles,” the organization claims on its website that they “are used by hunters, competitors, a lot of Americans seeking home-defense guns and by many others who simply enjoy going to the range.” The NSSF seeks to boost its credibility by claiming that the only people who consider “the modern sporting rifle” as  a “weapon of war” are those who want to ban them. A brief investigation into the well-documented history of these weapons proves otherwise. Assault weapons are described as weapons of war because they are weapons of war.

The first assault rifle was allegedly developed by the Germans in 1944 and named Sturmgewehr (“storm” or “assault” weapon) by Adolf Hitler. Armies needed “cover fire,” so they were working to develop guns that could fire rapidly—not necessarily accurately—without producing the heavy recoil of WWI-era machine guns. The Soviets followed with their own assault rifle, the AK-47, and in 1969 the U.S. Army adopted the M-16. This rifle, now in its fourth iteration, the M16A4, is widely used along with the M4 carbine across all branches of the service. The “civilian” counterpart to both is the AR-15, which is an extremely popular semi-automatic rifle. The difference between the two designs is in the firing mechanism: M-16’s have a selective fire option where they can be fully automatic (the trigger is held down to fire continuous shots), semi-automatic (the trigger must be pulled for each bullet), or they can fire in three-round bursts. A semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 requires the user to pull the trigger for each round, but it can still fire dozens of rounds per minute because subsequent rounds are automatically fed into the chamber. When a bump stock is attached to a semi-automatic rifle, it functions very similarly to an automatic weapon, allowing the operator to fire multiple rounds rapidly with a single pull of the trigger. School shooters, however, prefer the semi-automatic rifle without a bump stock because it offers more control and better aim while still offering rapid fire.

Both automatic and semi-automatic guns are categorized as “assault” weapons because they were designed for military assault in situations when accuracy isn’t prioritized. The gun lobby takes issue with the term “assault” weapons, arguing that they were branded as such by gun-control advocates to make the weapons seem more dangerous than they are. But as we’ve witnessed from massacre after massacre, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, weapons manufacturers were the first to adopt and market semi-automatic weapons as assault weapons to their public consumers, including the “Bushmaster assault rifle” when it was first advertised to the public in the 1980s in Guns & Ammo magazine. One after-market supplier even named itself Assault Systems, directing its advertisements to civilian owners of assault weapons. The gun industry has long exploited the cachet of assault weapons as weapons of war, and they only began denying their history and purpose when federal legislation began targeting them.

***

Perpetrators of mass violence seek out assault weapons because of their efficiency in killing swiftly and continuously, limited only by the size of the magazine attached. Other guns, of course, require a pause between each pull of the trigger to load a bullet into the firing chamber. The distinction is not benign. 

When Adam Lanza entered Victoria Soto’s classroom, he had already murdered substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau, the class aide and behavioral therapist Rachel D’Avino, and 14 of Rousseau’s 16 students. One student would die later at the hospital. Another student survived by playing dead, found beneath a pile of bodies in the class bathroom.  This detail, which I learned through interviews I had with survivors’ parents who wish to remain anonymous, is upsetting but relevant; she survived by hiding, not by running, because none of the students in Rousseau’s class had the opportunity to escape.

In the next classroom, Lanza shot Soto first, and within seconds he had killed five children and Anne Marie Murphy, the aide who died with her arms wrapped around her ward. In the brief time it took Lanza to reload, nine students were able to escape and two hid. They are alive today because of it. The weapon was made for killing without pause, and that is exactly what Adam Lanza did. How many other children could have run to safety if he had been forced to pause between each shot? It is not difficult to imagine. 

What is difficult to imagine is how easy it has been to distort the history of these weapons and rebrand them. The growth of the gun industry has, in fact, depended on the success of this campaign: It turns out that even though there are more guns in this country than ever, the percentage of households who own them has declined from 50% in 1977 to just 34% in 2018. Without expanding its customer base, the gun industry can only grow by encouraging its existing customers to buy newer, more expensive weapons—like assault rifles.

This raises a question: If assault rifles aren’t designed for hunting sports or even for home protection, what needs do assault weapons meet? In researching his book, Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights, Dr. Spitzer found that many people who own a semi-automatic weapon want to use it for fun. For the thrill. Because they can. Consider the implications of the rights-based rhetoric of the gun lobby: Fun is the liberty that trumps peace and justice.

Adam Lanza used his AR-15 assault rifle for fun. It was a gift from his mother, and one of the only activities they shared was blowing off steam together at the shooting range. The problem with imagining guns as harmless recreational equipment when in the right hands is that human beings are flawed. In part because of this fact, access to dangerous consumer goods is limited and carefully monitored in every other corner of life so that we might feel a measure of safety in our communities. But guns are an outlier, and they remain so because the NSSF and its counterparts—despite a well-documented link between assault weapons, mass killing, and extraordinary profits—are winning the battle against nearly all national gun-regulation policies.

***

While some progress has been made at the state level by grassroots organizations (progress now threatened by the Supreme Court decision in Bruen), the work has largely been overshadowed by failures at the federal level. In April 2013, efforts to pass a new federal assault-weapons ban were defeated in the Senate. The result was expected, but the nation was stunned when the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks was also defeated. A large majority of Americans, even a majority of NRA members (72% according to a 2015 Public Policy Polling survey), support this common-sense foundation of effective gun regulation. 

Under current federal law, only licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks, but a person can legally buy a gun from an unlicensed dealer. This is an astonishing loophole. Anyone can go online and buy a firearm from a private, unlicensed seller, or from private sellers at trade shows (like the SHOT show hosted by the NSSF). A 2015 national firearms survey found that 22% of gun acquisitions were completed without background checks that year, a figure that represents millions of guns in 2015 alone.

But, the NRA links even the most elemental and publicly supported regulatory measures—including universal background checks—to the rhetoric of rights and freedom by making a slippery slope argument about the specter of gun confiscation. This allows them to paint politicians as anti–Second Amendment for supporting any regulation whatsoever; they do so with the help of organizations like the NSSF who claim that universal background checks “are the first step in dismantling the Second Amendment.”

The local community here in Newtown has organized protests against the NSSF for nearly a decade. In the wake of the Uvalde massacre, people are once again taking to the streets, as they did on June 11th, when hundreds of protestors joined Sandy Hook survivors and other young March for Our Lives organizers at Newtown Middle School. Before walking the mile to NSSF headquarters, participants listened to survivors speak, and to a local bus driver who, despite concerns about being met with violence, would not be deterred in his right to peacefully assemble. The crowd roared. The truth is, however, that local protests will likely wane once again because the NSSF is a behemoth: insulated, well-defended, and still flying under the radar at the national level.

Abbey Clements, a gun-violence-prevention advocate and Sandy Hook Elementary school teacher who was with her second-grade class at the time of shooting, used to participate in some of the protests. She eventually stopped going, though. “It does feel good to stand there with a sign, feeling like you are doing something with your anger,” Clements explained, but the protests “were really hard. They got intimidating because the gun-carrying folks … literally it was in your back. So they got a little scary.”

And there it is. The thing that makes this issue so tense, so personal, so important, and so terrifying: One side is armed. “After a while you don’t want somebody standing behind you with a gun,” said Clements. 

***

After taking my girls swimming one recent afternoon, we got stuck in traffic right in front of the NSSF headquarters. My mother-in-law, who was visiting from Europe, looked at the building and said, “that place doesn’t make any sense.” Thinking about the ugly irony of the headquarters’ location, I replied, “Tell me about it.” But my idiom was lost in translation, so she continued. She pointed to a lovely little balcony over the main entrance, noting that there was no way to reach it. No door or window through which to step outside and breathe fresh air. I’d never noticed it before, but she was right. Whoever works inside is tucked away behind a façade adorned with false balconies, cultivating the illusion of civility. 

But if one looks closely, the crouching giant is still very much there.

 

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