A zealous gun rights group, even more uncompromising than the once formidable National Rifle Association, is emerging as a force in US politics with a mission to oppose efforts at gun control and ease further America’s already lax regulations on firearms.
Last year the Gun Owners of America (GOA) spent $3.3m on lobbying, a record sum for the hardline foe of gun control that now claims over 2 million members and activists, and has previously operated in the shadows of the larger NRA.
The GOA’s record lobbying spending in 2022 was spurred in part by a rise in its annual revenues, which more than tripled from $2.3m in 2016 to $8.7m in 2021, according to tax records.
The GOA is an adamant enemy of gun control measures of all stripes, and proudly calls itself the “no compromise” gun lobby. Its surge in lobbying spending reflects one way it has capitalized on the financial and legal problems of the once 5 million-member NRA in the hopes of expanding the GOA’s political clout, say gun experts.
“The GOA was formed in the 1970s because they believed the NRA was too liberal,” said Robert Spitzer, the author of several books on guns and a professor emeritus at Suny Cortland in New York. “True to its creed, the GOA has opposed every manner of gun law and attacked the NRA at every turn.”
The GOA’s anti-gun control posture was underscored by its opposition to a bipartisan compromise gun control bill in 2022 that closed some gun law loopholes, including for prospective buyers under 21, and implemented gun violence prevention policies, becoming the first gun control bill enacted since 1994.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act garnered just 29 Republican votes in Congress, but the GOA this year in an alert to its members warning of pending legislative threats suggested those votes were “cowardly”.
The GOA’s lobbying efforts in 2022 were notable in another way: it was the only gun rights group to increase its spending in 2022 according to OpenSecrets, and surpassed the NRA’s lobbying expenditures of $2.6m last year, a drop of over $2m from the NRA’s 2021 total.
Through the first six months of 2023, the GOA spent $1.8m on lobbying, putting it on track to equal or surpass the $3.2m it spent last year.
As it has ramped up its influence activity in Washington, the GOA also touts its member chapters and allies including the California Gun Rights Foundation and other ones in Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Nationally the GOA and its chapters have flexed their lobbying and legal muscles in some significant fights in several states. For instance, in New Mexico the GOA has claimed success in obtaining a temporary restraining order against new gun curbs in Albuquerque.
On the legal front, the GOA has also filed amicus briefs – with help from the conservative lawyer William Olson, who put forward some aggressive schemes to Donald Trump in late 2020 as he sought to overturn his election defeat – in at least two major cases pending at the supreme court where the GOA is seeking to thwart existing and new gun regulations. This month the court heard arguments in US vs Rahimi that could overturn a 30-year-old ban on guns for individuals under domestic violence restraining orders.
Gun experts say the GOA has long tried to outflank the NRA on the right as the most implacable opponent of gun control measures, and now sees an opening to expand its influence in federal and state battles over gun control.
“With the mostly self-inflicted damage the NRA has suffered, the GOA very much wants to replace the NRA as the nation’s pre-eminent gun rights group,” said Spitzer. “To that end, it is raising and spending more money, filing more suits against gun laws, and has formed its own Super Pac and political victory fund. These and other tactics mimic the NRA’s traditional political playbook.”
In Spitzer’s eyes, “the GOA’s prospects for success depend on the extent to which the NRA can recover from its reversals and retain the loyalty of gun owners”.
The NRA has reportedly lost about 1 million members since 2019 after allegations of financial misconduct surfaced and the New York attorney general sued the CEO of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, and other top executives for using the NRA as a “personal piggy bank”.
Some ex-members of Congress say that historically the GOA has tried to exploit a perception that the NRA is too moderate.
“For years, the NRA had concerns about losing members to the GOA and other extreme groups,” the former Republican congressman Charlie Dent said. “Any time the NRA tried to compromise on something, the GOA would accuse them of selling out.”
Likewise, gun control advocates and ex-NRA officials say the GOA has been moving to fill the gap created by the NRA’s woes.
“The NRA’s loss has been GOA’s gain,” Kristen Rand, a veteran lawyer with the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy and research group, told the Guardian. “GOA makes the NRA look thoughtful and moderate. No matter how minor a change in rule or statute, GOA always portrays it as a sweeping gun ban.”
Such hardball tactics have coincided with an uptick in the GOA’s federal campaign spending to expand its influence. The GOA donated $147,500 to Republican federal candidates last year, more than double what the group donated in 2018 to federal candidates, according to OpenSecrets.
Further, the GOA last year established a Super Pac, the GOA Victory Fund, which spent $2.6m on federal races in last fall’s elections.
The GOA did not respond to calls seeking comment.
To keep the heat on Congress by mobilizing its members, the GOA regularly posts feverish alerts. Several alerts this year have bashed regulatory moves by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and other efforts to tighten gun curbs in response to rising deaths from gun violence, and mass shootings in Maine, New York, Texas and other states since Joe Biden became president.
One GOA alert this year broadly condemned the ATF as a “rogue executive branch that flat out hates gun owners and the constitution”.
Other GOA alerts warn darkly of threats of new gun control bills after last year’s bipartisan measure passed, including a possible assault weapons ban that Biden has called for, but which is deemed unlikely while Republicans control the House.
One alert warned: “Now, Biden and the anti-gun lobby are dialing up the pressure on the same cowardly Republicans to find support for the next item on their endless wish list of gun control … a national ban on so-called ‘assault weapons’ and normal capacity magazines.”
Gun control advocates say the GOA’s scare tactics are out of sync with reality.
“Gun Owners of America peddles hyperbolic falsehoods about any and all attempts by Congress to slow the devastating toll of gun violence in our nation,” said Adzi Vokhiwa, the director of federal affairs for Giffords, a gun control advocacy group.
“They even oppose every effort by the ATF to simply enforce gun laws.
“Gun safety laws limiting the availability of firearms to people with a history of dangerous behavior can and do co-exist with the ability of law-abiding gun owners to freely exercise their second amendment rights, despite GOA’s false claims otherwise.”
Other anti-gun control groups have also ramped up their lobbying and legal drives.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which represents the firearms industry, has outspent the NRA on lobbying in recent years. In 2020 and 2021, the NSSF reported spending $4.6m and $5m respectively on federal lobbying. By contrast, the NRA spent $2.2m and $4.9m.
Some ex-NRA officials downplay the influence of the GOA and other pro-gun groups in the wake of the NRA’s problems.
“The void created by the self-inflicted and fatal chaos that is the current NRA is being filled by numerous other pro-gun organizations,” a former NRA executive said, adding that this situation “is more of a reflection on the demise of the NRA, than the effectiveness of other organizations”.
Another ex-NRA honcho quipped: “GOA’s rise corresponds to when the NRA started going down the crapper.”
Assessing the GOA’s impact and expanded lobbying efforts, the Violence Policy Center’s Rand stressed: “As the NRA has lost its footing, its more extreme members have embraced GOA. The group’s expanding influence can only drive pro-gun positions on legislation even further to the right.”