In testimony during Thursday’s NRA’s bankruptcy trial, CEO Wayne LaPierre said the gun-rights group currently has about 4.89 million dues-paying members, with about 2 million being lifetime members. That makes it by far the biggest gun group in America, but it also underscores a serious problem.
In 2013, LaPierre first announced the group had reached five million members. He said the group had added half a million members in the previous six months alone. He then promised to double the NRA’s numbers.
“By the time we’re finished, the NRA must and will be 10 million strong,” USA Today reported LaPierre saying at the group’s 2013 annual meeting.
Eight years later and the membership has not just stagnated but shrunk. While the Census shows the population grew by about 3.8 percent over that period, the NRA membership has apparently shrunk by about 2.2 percent.
If the NRA’s membership has hit a ceiling, that’s significant, and it’s a bad sign for the most influential gun-rights group on the planet. It’s also a bad sign for NRA leadership’s argument in their current argument in the bankruptcy case. NRA leadership has repeatedly argued the LaPierre is the driving force behind fundraising at the organization, and it could not operate anywhere as effectively without him. But LaPierre has not only failed to meet his self-set 2013 goal of doubling NRA membership; membership has actually receded by his own account.
I reached out to the NRA for comment on the membership numbers but did not hear back before publication.
A headline in the NRA’s America’s 1st Freedom magazine declared the group had reached 6 million members in August of 2018. The text of the article put it at “nearly 6 million” with “an increase of more than a million members since just before the Parkland shooting” earlier that year. The next month, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told The Washington Post the number was back to “approximately 5.5 million dues-paying members.”
Three years later, it’s back down to less than 5 million.
Membership in political organizations like the NRA tends to increase in election years and decrease otherwise. Major pushes for new federal gun-control laws, like those after the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, also have an obvious effect on NRA membership. So, some fluctuation year to year should be expected, but it doesn’t explain the eight-year flatline the group has seen.
And the long-term trend should concern anyone who believes the NRA’s huge membership base is key to projecting the political power of gun owners. It’s the fact that millions of people are willing to pay the NRA money to be a member that gives it immense political influence. No other gun-related group on either side of the issue comes anywhere close to having that sort of dedicated fan base. Not Everytown for Gun Safety or Giffords or Gun Owners of America or anyone else.
With long-time NRA antagonist Joe Biden now in the Oval Office and attacking the group by name, there should be ample opportunity for the group to grow membership depending on how it emerges from the legal troubles it is currently entangled in. The NRA may be preoccupied with mere survival at this point, but they should turn an eye towards long-term growth as well. Forced dissolution would mean a quick death, but stagnation would mean a slow one.