With gun violence once again at the top of the U.S. political agenda, the rest of the world waits anxiously for signs that Washington can move beyond the polarizing national debate over gun control and develop even modest improvements to firearms legislation. The issue is particularly sensitive in the Americas, where the trafficking of American guns, both legal and illegal, represents a threat to public safety.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) will be at the center of this debate. Though widely considered one of the most powerful lobby groups in the U.S., the NRA’s impact on firearms policies extends far beyond U.S. borders.
Not only has the NRA blocked or reversed efforts to strengthen gun laws in the U.S., it has also worked to oppose international efforts to combat the illicit trade in firearms at forums such as the United Nations, arguing that these measures would trample U.S. rights. It has also engaged in policy advocacy in other countries, working against efforts to strengthen domestic firearms laws through a variety of means, believing that working internationally can help prevent global trends that could influence the U.S. debate. Although the NRA charter forbids it from spending money abroad, the organization works around this to provide resources and exert influence in many ways, including working with local gun lobby groups to develop their capacity to fight gun control legislation.
The NRA’s international lobbying activities make it a de facto ally of U.S. arms manufacturers—the world’s largest exporters of small arms—with U.S. exports totaling $706 million in 2009.1 Contributions and sponsorships from gunmakers have helped make it one of the most well-funded political lobbies in the U.S., which, in turn, gives it a strong voice in both domestic and international firearms debates. In 2010 alone, the NRA spent more than $243 million overall—80 times more than the largest pro–gun control group in the U.S., the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which spent just $3 million.2
Although some of its income comes from membership dues (the organization claims to have 4.5 million members), a significant portion of NRA revenue comes directly from the firearms industry, which contributes to the group in a variety of ways. The NRA’s Ring of Fire Corporate Partners Program has tiered incentives for business donors and has provided an estimated $20 million to $52 million in funding between 2005 and 2010. Industry advertising in NRA publications is another significant source of revenue, representing $20.9 million in 2010. Some gun manufacturers even subsidize the group directly, either by purchasing NRA memberships for their customers or by providing the NRA with a portion of revenues.3
In addition to those important legal firearms exports, the U.S. is also one of the principal sources of the black market international trade in weapons. For example, it is estimated that almost half of gun murders in Canada are committed with American handguns smuggled into the country illegally. In Toronto, police say that approximately 70 percent of guns seized in crimes are handguns smuggled from the United States.4
In 2009, a U.S. General Accounting Office report on firearms trafficking stated that 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities over the preceding five years originated in the United States.5 To the NRA, increased efforts by the U.S. government to fight this illegal arms smuggling were seen as a backdoor attempt to restrict gun ownership. “For American gun owners, the battle will be to make sure that politicians […] do not use Mexico as an excuse to sacrifice our Second Amendment rights,” the organization said in a statement.6
As one consequence, 2009 proposals from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to curb illicit trafficking to Mexico, which would have required gun dealers to report bulk sales of the kind of high-powered rifles favored by drug cartels, never saw the light of day.7
NRA activities in the Americas are often well below the radar screen. In 2010, the organization’s U.S. tax return lists unspecified “investments” in Central America and the Caribbean valued at $4 million.8 It spent $25,000 on law enforcement training in the Americas. The NRA also offers special seminars for the public for crime prevention and personal safety; one, called “Refuse to Be a Victim,” has been offered in Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago. The NRA also invests in research abroad that supports its policy positions. For example, the NRA funded research by Canadian gun rights activist Gary Mauser, a former professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who argued that Canadians used guns defensively and that gun control would jeopardize public safety.
But the NRA’s most visible efforts in the Americas have been in two of the largest countries: Canada and Brazil.
Happiness Is a Cold Gun
When Canada announced plans to strengthen gun laws in the early 1990s, the NRA threatened then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that its members would boycott hunting in Canada, a significant source of U.S. tourism dollars in many parts of Canada, particularly the West.
Although the country did pass stricter regulations, including the introduction of a firearms registry in 1995, the NRA did not give up the battle. During the past 20 years, NRA presidents have frequently spoken in Canada. Famously, Charlton Heston traveled to British Columbia to say stricter Canadian gun control would threaten Canadians’ rights to bear arms,9 even though Canada considers firearms ownership a privilege, not a right, a status that has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada.10 One widely circulated NRA-produced infomercial warned ominously that requirements for gun registration would reduce the ability of people to defend themselves.11
Under current Canadian law, the aquisition of military assault weapons (typically fully automatic or semi-automatic weapons that accept large-capacity magazines) is prohibited and there are restrictions on the private ownership of handguns and other firearms. Handguns may not be used for personal protection except in very specific cases, such as police and security guards. Jurisdiction over gun laws is primarily federal and all firearms must be safely stored separately from their ammunition, except in specific cases. All gun owners must be licensed, with rigorous and continuous background checks.
The NRA’s fight to relax Canadiangun laws finally succeeded in 2012. Following a campaign by Canadian hunter groups and pro-gun activists allied with the NRA, the government repealed the law establishing the long gun registry. The ownership records of 5.6 million rifles and shotguns were destroyed.
The difference in legislative approach between the two countries is one reason why the rate of gun-related homicides in Canada is starkly lower than in its next-door neighbor. In 2010, Canada recorded 0.53 gun homicides per 100,000 people, compared to 3.42 per 100,000 in the U.S. (the highest rate of gun deaths among industrialized nations).
Canadian gun lobby groups have not been shy about crediting the NRA for its assistance. The Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA) says the NRA was “instrumental in the foundation” of its lobby arm, the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action (CILA), which in turn claimed that the NRA provides “tremendous amounts of logistic support, especially in the areas of import/export of firearms and ammunition.” CSSA/CILA Executive Director Tony Bernardo said that he “coordinates with the NRA, relying on their expertise.”12 NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is featured on the cssa website saying the NRA “encourages all Canadian firearms owners to become cila-supporting members.”13
Just as significantly, the NRA has initiated efforts to build the youth market by targeting teens and children through teaching firearms safety. In Canada, for example, the NRA has promoted the idea of “gun-proofing children,” a strategy that involves teaching them how to load, aim and fire guns, as a more effective measure than storing firearms safely (required under Canadian law). Although research cited by organizations such as the Canadian Pediatric Association suggests that these programs are at best ineffective and at worst dangerous,14 similar programs have also been instituted by Canadian hunter organizations, such as the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which has established “firearms safety programs,” training children as young as eight years old on firearms handling.
Why does the NRA care so much about Canada? In his 2010 article on the campaign to eliminate the Canadian long-gun registry in the NRA magazine American Rifleman, LaPierre made clear that his organization hoped to use Canada as a model for pro-gun action elsewhere in the world. He quoted approvingly David Kopel from the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based conservative think tank, saying the “repeal of the Canadian registry would be of tremendous global significance.”15
Blocking the Brazilian Gun and Ammunition Ban
The NRA is widely credited for the defeat of Brazil’s 2005 referendum to ban the sale of firearms and ammunition to civilians. Shortly before the vote, NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam was reported saying, “We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement. If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next.”16 With high rates of gun violence, the Brazilian government strengthened the country’s gun laws considerably in 2003 with strict registration and licensing requirements and hoped to go further with the referendum in 2005. It appeared headed toward approval, with polls two months before the vote showing support for the ban hovering between 60 and 80 percent. But two weeks later, after the ballots were counted, Brazilians had rejected the proposal, with 64 percent voting against the ban.17 A NRA spokesman called the result “a victory for freedom.”18
In 2003, NRA lobbyist Charles Cunningham was sent to Brazil to meet with groups fighting for gun rights such as the Associação Nacional dos Proprietários e Comerciantes de Armas (ANCPA) and the Sociedade Brasileira de Defesa da Tradição, Família e Propriedade (TFP). The purpose of the visit was to help the Brazilian groups learn from the U.S. experience, develop capacities and public education campaigns, and focus on strategies based on the rights to self-defense and to own firearms.19 The TFP website reported, “Before his talk, Mr. Cunningham met to discuss strategy […] to more effectively oppose radical disarmament legislation which was first introduced in 1997.”20
NRA materials, such as television advertisements and other propaganda, were translated into Portuguese, featuring NRA statistics and arguments that link the right to own firearms to freedom and democracy.21 The right to bear arms has no legislative or constitutional foundation in Brazil and there are relatively low rates of legal civilian gun ownership. But the message of distrust of government resonated in a country not long free of military dictatorship. Focusing on building capacity and a unified theme, the NRA’s sophisticated and Brazil-tailored messaging and marketing machine was considered the determining factor in the final outcome.22
Following the killing of 12 children and injuring of 12 others at the Tasso da Silveira Municipal School in Rio in April 2011, the leader of the senate announced that the country would propose another national vote on whether to ban the sale of firearms.23 This referendum has yet to be held.
The NRA has been a very active participant whenever issues linked to firearms have been discussed at the UN, working to oppose measures aimed at fighting the illegal gun trade. In 1997, it helped found the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA), an international association of gun rights organizations. The group lists 46 members, representing the firearms industry and hunting and shooting groups, including the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the Association of European Manufacturers of Sporting Ammunition, the European Association of Civil Commerce of Weapons (AECAC), and Second Amendment Foundation.
The WFSA claims to represent more than 100 million civilian firearms owners around the world. At its March 2010 annual meeting, Steve Sanetti, president and CEO of both NSSFand SAAMI, called for a “bigger, more powerful organization” to enable it to more effectively fight “international threats” to firearms trade.24 The WFSA also monitors gun debates and legislative activities. For example, in 2012, SAAMI intervened in Canada on changes to the Explosives Act that regulates the sale of ammunition.
The wfsa has been very active in international discussions to lobby against efforts to regulate the arms trade—particularly at the UN, where it has status as a recognized non-governmental organization. The WFSA provides a mechanism to coordinate messaging and statements by its member groups at UN meetings, with the NRA often taking a lead on the messaging. In addition, the NRA’s lobbying of the U.S. Congress has ensured that American delegates to the UN block or water down consensus on agreements to combat the illegal gun trade. For example, the decision by the U.S. to abandon efforts to reach an agreement at the UN Arms Trade Treaty talks in July 2012, a treaty deeply opposed by the NRA, was assumed to have been a result of President Barack Obama wanting to avoid it as an issue in his reelection fight.
In spite of its mandate, there is ample evidence that the NRA has been active globally, and not just where U.S. domestic interests are at stake. Its direct engagement in the Canadian gun control debate dates back almost 30 years and is evident in the rhetoric and the tactics of the Canadian gun lobby. For the most part, its efforts have been under the radar. While welcomed by a few, most Canadians have been outraged when the NRA’s role has come to light. As former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has said on more than one occasion, “The National Rifle Association is one American export Canada does not want.”25