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Gun Owners of America: a case study

Updated: Nov 9



Membership, History, Purpose, and Interests:


In trying to grasp the essence of membership in Gun Owners of America - if the organization’s name wasn’t implicative enough - a telling experience can be derived from the group’s enrollment process. First and foremost, prospective members are welcomed by a photo of Harry Reid and a quote of his that reads, “GOA is even worse than bad”, to immediately establish an unmistakable culture of owning libs. In fact, there is a missive on GOA’s website solely intent on explicating how problematic the liberal media finds the group. More importantly, however, one notices that the cost of an annual membership is only $25, making GOA’s paywall ostensibly low enough for anyone to overcome while maintaining some air of distinction among members. There is an option for a lifetime membership which can be purchased for $1,000 but even this is made accessible through a payment plan.

The affordability of enrollment speaks to a comprehensive membership comprised of overlapping factions of Republicans, evangelicals, and underserved, undereducated, poor white southerners. Setting aside a conversation regarding the systemic nature and perpetuation of inaccessible or underfunded education and the consequent economic disadvantages endemic to rural America, it is worth noting a correlation between higher education and more progressive policy perspectives when discussing the memberships of groups such as the GOA, who Ron Paul called “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington”.

In fact, in 2017, the Pew Research Center published a study concerning the demography of gun owners in the United States, demonstrating a pronounced education gap among white gun owners. “Among whites”, the study finds, “about four-in-ten of those with a high school diploma or less (40%) or with some college (42%) are gun owners, compared with roughly a quarter of white college graduates (26%)”.

The percentages of gun owners who did not graduate college evoke the approval ratings of Donald Trump along with relative blocs of creationists, climate crisis skeptics, and those who can’t name an amendment in the Bill of Rights, and these factions are doubtless reflected among the, purportedly, over 2 million members of Gun Owners of America.

After an unsuccessful run for U. S. Senate in 1974, California State Senator Bill Richardson, NRA board member and intermittent Chair of the Republican Caucus, became incensed by a piece of legislation that threatened handgun ownership in his state. Shortly thereafter he founded Gun Owners of America nationally with headquarters in Springfield, Virginia. Richardson also went on to found Gun Owners of California.

In its first twenty years, the interest group was fairly quick to garner support and sustain itself within grassroots efforts to disseminate gun rights propaganda, but Gun Owners of America initially lacked substantial political gravitas. It wasn’t until 1995 that the group gained traction after successfully lobbying Congress against banning the export of .50 caliber weapons. From there, GOA skyrocketed into its heyday, spending over $18 million lobbying Congress from 1998 to 2004.

The group was highly active in the latter Bush years and early Obama years, throwing its weight behind amendments and bills germane to gun rights and proposed in Congress by the likes of David Vitter, Jim DeMint, and Mike Pence. More recently, however, it appears that GOA might have refocused its efforts once again toward grassroots activism and internal empowerment, while maintaining its lobbying efforts through a PAC and foundation. Bill Richardson died in January of this year at the age of 92.

Gun Owners of America draws purpose and strength from their collective understanding and interpretation of United States Constitution. The online community GOA has engendered in the past few years has apparently flourished into the centerpiece of the group’s member operations, with internal and external rhetoric remaining founded in the perception of government oppression. The group sees the Second Amendment as intrinsically supportive of individual gun ownership rights, and takes vehement issue with the perceived attack on certain inalienable freedoms the Second Amendment allegedly assures.

The purpose of Gun Owners of America is largely manifested in the group’s online engagement, as the promotion and awareness of gun ownership is paramount. Still, public events are regularly held to promulgate the conservative views of the group’s leadership. With fortifying the protections of the Second Amendment at the top of its list, GOA further services its community and the common good by “promoting and developing a greater understanding and awareness regarding the importance and benefits of firearms ownership”.

The most recent example of consequence regarding the GOA’s current purpose has to do with a case brought to the Virginia Supreme Court by Gun Owners of America and the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The groups sued Governor Ralph Northam over a ban on firearms for a pro gun rally at the state capital. GOA’s website frames certain aspects of the resulting ruling to their advantage, however, the state of Virginia ultimately upheld the ban.

The particular interests of Gun Owners of America that are shared by its members and forwarded by its leadership can be synopsized in the following four words: hands off our guns. The group espouses the values of paleoconservative right wing populism, and generally attracts those for whom the government remains a target of unfounded yet unbridled rage, if not those for whom the NRA did too little.

The beneficiaries of the actions of Gun Owners of America can be observed principally among the organization’s uppermost echelons of leadership. The insidious force that compels societal hordes of poor, undereducated people to align themselves with a ruling economic elite seems to have similarly served the administration of GOA. Its members, on the other hand, are only the peripheral beneficiaries of legislation for which the group intermittently lobbies.

That said, these are the same members who pine for a climate conducive to citizen insurgence along with the general dissolution of government, while concurrently supporting the violent, authoritarian occupation of several major U.S. cities at the behest of a tyrant. Overall, the membership of GOA is marked by its conservatism. Its history and purpose are steeped in feigned persecution, and the interests for which it stands can be reduced to a misunderstanding of the Second Amendment.


Political Climate and Policy Interests:


The year 2020 was marked by contention from its start. Acquiescent Democrats in the House and Senate, a lethal pandemic virus that was essentially weaponized by the Trump administration, an economy and employment numbers worse than we’ve seen since the Great Depression, and the unbridled police brutality and murder of Black people in this county have all conspired to engender a hostile political environment, to say the least.

Recently, the Democratic National Committee voted 125-36 against the interests of 85% of its constituency by putting the kibosh on the inclusion of Medicare for All in the party’s platform (Blanc). Even in compiling their public relations wish list, the people in government who stake their legitimacy on being better aligned with populist sentiments could not deign to pretend to care about the health of their voters amid a pandemic that has left over 155,000 Americans dead and millions more sick.

With the establishment left working in concert with Republicans to buttress the electoral authoritarian nightmare that has befallen this country, we have seen an extreme polarization on the political spectrum in the last year alone. It is no longer enough for some to reform prisons, they demand their abolition. It is no longer enough to reform police or the electoral college, they must be dissolved completely. Others taking a more centrist approach have become enemies of the left and the right, alike, with the right now complacently eschewing empathy of any kind.

In such a contentious and nuanced political climate, the appetite for gun control is as varied as its opponents are motley. A college educated culture - or one informed by liberal ideals and platitudes - is typically one that disavows the necessity, or at least the appeal, of firearm deregulation. Within this culture, demonstrations in defense of purported Second Amendment protections reasonably evoke images of white supremacists storming government buildings, armed to the teeth with assault weaponry to protest against their own interests.

Yet, this narrative is challenged by demonstrations such as the one in which a thousand armed Black activists marched though Stone Mountain Park protesting a massive sculpture honoring confederate leaders (Ibrahim). Thus, the best context in which to observe the average American’s opinion on gun policies is fear. For months, the president has incited racist violence, secret police and federal officers have been terrorizing the streets of major cities across the country, and the media is wont to report on nothing but savagery whether in good or bad faith.

People are terrified. Ostensibly, firearm purchases since the pandemic hit have more than doubled from 2019 (Arnold). Of course, this increase is to the delight of interest groups such as Gun Owners of America, and one can easily imagine those numbers being exacerbated by months of mass protest against racist police brutality and murder. Right wing leaders in all branches of federal and state government are trying to assert their dominance in various arenas, and gun control has been no exception.

Enter Gun Owners of America, the self proclaimed conservative alternative to the National Rifle Association. GOA fights for myriad and specific gun policies in Washington. Additionally, they often throw their weight behind state legislation. During the pandemic, their purview has expanded into establishing firearm dispensaries as essential businesses, dismantling background checks, and halting legislation permitting reasonable gun confiscation orders.

On the state level, GOA pressured the judiciary by joining suits against closures of gun stores and shooting ranges in Massachusetts and Maryland. This was to the avail of an advantageous court ruling in Massachusetts, and a favorable executive order from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. They further celebrated the victory of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signing off on four separate pro-gun bills that will strengthen preemption, protect against gun bans in emergencies, expand gun carry protections during emergencies, and, perhaps unconstitutionally, permit the carrying of firearms in churches.

Moreover, the group continues to heavily fund campaigns, and either favor or malign political actors according to their actions regarding gun policies. For instance, GOA commended New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu on vetoing H.R. 6395 that would have established a protective order for vulnerable adults, touting that his perfect Second Amendment record remains in tact. The group similarly calls on retributive action to be taken against even Republicans in the House who voted for the bill, parts of which reinforce red flag laws.

While, as discussed earlier, gun rights advocates are embodied far and wide across the political spectrum, it would not be imprudent to assume the bad faith of the lobbying actions of Gun Owners of America. The policy preferences for which they fight are rooted in values that can be described in no other equitable way than as deplorable. On top of wanting to put a gun into the hands of every baby and elderly person in America, Gun Owners of America employs an intentionally inciting rhetoric throughout their literature.

Provocative rhetoric devoid of any intellectual honesty aside, the group’s political successes may be ephemeral, at best, as is the nature of the beast. For while gun sales have been amplified in such an unprecedented way, so has the percentage of Americans opining stricter regulations of firearms (Gallup).


Channels of Advocacy:


Gun Owners of America utilizes myriad channels of influence and advocacy. From their appearances on Fox News to their appearances at the Capitol Hill Club, their mission remains, “to preserve, protect, and defend the second amendment rights of gun owners, including promoting and developing a greater understanding and awareness regarding the importance and benefits of firearms ownership, and conducting education and policy related to such rights” (GOA).

The group accomplishes the ‘awareness’ aspect of this mission through the dissemination of brazen lies. Through their YouTube channel, GOA produces fear mongering propaganda that consistently garners thousands of views. In more than one instance, the group sent out inciting mailers duplicitously warning gun owners of lawmakers’ intent to jail them (Zaitchik). These ventures into the group’s perceived edification of Americans are important to policy outcomes because they have been the bedrock of grassroots movements consequential to national elections. These grassroots efforts have also been directly influential to policy, as when they led to killing a proposal to expand background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, no less through efforts maligning Senators Manchin and Toomey with outrageous fabrications and accusations (Spies).

Moreover, these grassroots movements are only the beginning of Gun Owners of America’s policy influence. Alexander Zaitchik, for an article in Rolling Stone, writes, “When Gun Owners of America helped lead the gun-rights charge against an expansion of background checks, the New York Times discovered this ‘influential force’ capable of both ‘freezing’ and ‘empowering’ senators.”

The article serves as an exposé on Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America and long time gun rights institution in Washington. Zaitchik, for Rolling Stone, goes on to write, “Indeed, few figures have had a greater impact in the development of the pro-gun movement. Purist groups created on his “no compromise” model now lead the charges in the courts and the states to block new gun-control legislation and chip away at those that exist. Most make the NRA look moderate by comparison.”

Pratt’s continual influence on policy is undeniable. He worked closely with legislators on passing the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1985, and ever since has sustained aggressive lobbying tactics on the Hill, celebrating countless national and state victories for Gun Owners of America (Spies). Most of these tactics, however, will likely be forever unknown to most, as Pratt’s associates in Washington - from Congressional staffers to Mitch McConnell to Klan leaders - refuse to disclose their interactions (Zaitchik).


Successes and Failures:


Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit struck down what many viewed as an unconstitutional ban on high capacity gun magazines in California (Barnes). Gun Owners of America, among other gun rights groups, saw this ban, along with other recent rulings from the circuit, as a “broadside attack” on the Second Amendment. And with President Trump having stacked the courts with some 200 federal judges as of June, GOA has undeniably been set up for some more wins.

To remind the reader of the policy aims Gun Owners of America, their mission statement asserts their intent, “to preserve, protect, and defend the second amendment rights of gun owners, including promoting and developing a greater understanding and awareness regarding the importance and benefits of firearms ownership, and conducting education and policy related to such rights” (GOA).

As far as national precedents were concerned with accomplishing the aforementioned mission, the Supreme Court’s decision earlier in June this year to decline no fewer than ten Second Amendment cases seemed to precipitate a devastating blow to gun rights groups intent on policy change and the dissemination of their message (Banes). Yet, the recent Ninth Circuit victory for GOA may just be one of many to come, as the group has a number of amicus curiae filed with the court, including one calling for relaxing the “erroneous” background checks some states require for the sales of ammunition.

As we know, the Ninth Circuit is one of twelve, and all twelve of these districts have been tirelessly inundated with petitions, grievances, lawsuits, and amicus curiae briefs from Gun Owners of America. That said, legalese is not the first language of GOA. That would be fear mongering. As mentioned in earlier case studies, the online community GOA has engendered in the past few years has flourished into a centerpiece of operations.

The policy purposes of Gun Owners of America is largely manifested in the group’s online engagement as well, as they view the promotion and awareness of gun rights as paramount to this endeavor. Online is also where GOA leadership mobilizes many of its members toward policy victories.

One such victory occurred in 2013, when Senator Schumer teamed up with a Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn. The two co-sponsored a piece of bipartisan legislation that would have expanded background checks, inciting the fury of Larry Pratt (the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America) and subsequently thousands of GOA members at Pratt’s behest. Coburn would eventually abandon the bill to die after a deluge of irate correspondence flooded the senators’ offices.

In 2016, President Obama issued an executive order having to do with to gun seller licensing, reporting lost or stolen firearms, and mental health records as they related to purchasing firearms. Shortly after, GOA launched a campaign to block a bill that addressing federal sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes, and mandatory sentence minimums and maximums, unless Obama repealed his order. This may essentially count as a win for the group given the bill seems to have died in the Judiciary Committee years ago after the GOA’s dogged attacks against legislators involved.

There are numerous successes that can be claimed by Gun Owners of America, and again, not all on the national level. In Massachusetts and Maryland, for instance, the GOA recently joined suits against closures of gun stores and shooting ranges to the avail of an advantageous court ruling in Massachusetts, and a favorable executive order from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The group also recently celebrated the victory of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signing off on four separate pro-gun bills that will strengthen preemption, protect against gun bans in emergencies, expand gun carry protections during emergencies, and, perhaps unconstitutionally, permit the carrying of firearms in churches.

GOA also continues to heavily fund winning campaigns, and either favor or aggressively malign political actors according to their actions regarding gun policies. These bulldozing tactics have fostered a leadership and membership with blinders to their failures, as well as to their successes sometimes.

By this, I refer to some of the group’s self defeating logic such as can be found in the title of a recent press release that reads, “Joe Biden’s VP Pick Cements Shift to the Militant, Radically Anti-Gun Left”. The release goes on to portray Senator Harris as crazed and a “direct threat to every gun owner in the country”, without ever really consolidating their accusations of militancy and anti-gun leftism or acknowledging the realities of her prosecutorial career and voting record.

This is an example of how GOA denies itself a win in its far right extremism and inciting language. Although, this tactic is not uncommonly applied to their losses, as well. A case they brought to the Virginia Supreme Court along with the Virginia Citizens Defense League sued Governor Ralph Northam over a ban on firearms for a pro gun rally at the state capital. GOA’s website frames certain aspects of the resulting ruling to their advantage, and yet, the state of Virginia ultimately upheld the ban.

The failures of the group, while obviously not as publicized as their successes, more often dissolve before they could even really be considered failures, just as how the Supreme Court recently decided against hearing a slew of cases related to the Second Amendment. Still, any piece of legislation that regulates gun ownership, whether or not the GOA was even involved, is seen as an affront to the group’s members and their way of life. In California, for instance, a bevy of laws were just passed relating to purchase and licensing fees, transaction limitations, gun violence restraining orders, suicide warning labels, and more (Smith).

I believe the group has succeeded through its grassroots mobilization efforts, aggressive lobbying tactics, deceitful smear campaigns, and, as per the lecture Lobbying the American People, their supplemental lobbying of citizens in an attempt to curate a specific culture that is receptive to their intended policy goals.

The group’s successes are also in large part due to their financial fluency in politics. Ballotpedia cites OpenSecrets and the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database in disclosing that GOA’s expenditures lobbying Congress from 1999 to 2016 exceeded $32 million. If we have observed anything throughout this course, it is the substantive influence of organized money in politics.

All things considered, with the rising percentage of U.S. citizens opining the necessity of stricter firearm regulations, I maintain the ephemeral nature of the group’s successes, though I suppose the same could be said of their failures. In the grand scheme, hopefully a progressive political trend will ensure a more lasting wave of future failures for Gun Owners of America.


works cited on request