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Inside the “Other” Gun Lobby

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The last time the firearms industry was under threat, the gun companies panicked.

It was 1998, and the mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial, had filed a lawsuit against major gun manufacturers, accusing them of negligence that contributed to handgun murders in the city.

Morial’s suit argued that guns were too easily turned against their owners or fired accidentally because the manufacturers had knowingly chosen not to invest in building safer firearms. His decision to file was spurred by the murder of Raymond Myles, a beloved New Orleans Gospel singer, who had recently been shot to death by an assailant using Myles’ own handgun.

The lawsuit came as other cities had already been considering similar legislation. Within a year, using strategies from the fight against the tobacco industry, 28 cities and counties filed similar suits, including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cleveland and Boston. The plan was to expose what the filers saw as a secretive industry that made dangerous products.

The lawsuits drew on three main allegations (pdf): Morial’s claim that the manufacturers were negligent in their firearms designs; second, that the firearms distribution system too easily allowed illegal gun trafficking; and finally that manufacturers marketed guns for home protection despite knowing that firearms could also make homes less safe.

The gun industry, estimated to generate $2 billion per year in sales, worried that if the more than 40 companies named in these suits lost, they could face bankruptcy. Cities nationwide were asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for years of gun murders. Some manufacturers wanted to fight back, while others thought about trying to settle. Executives gathered at a resort in Arizona to try to figure out what to do.

“Your Fight Has Become Our Fight”

The organization that came to the rescue was the National Shooting Sports Foundation, (NSSF), a little-known industry trade group that promoted hunting and shooting.

At the time, the NSSF, now headquartered in Newtown, Conn., had been around for almost 40 years. It wasn’t controversial, focusing largely on hunting safety. One of its biggest accomplishments was the introduction of hunter-orange clothing in the woods, which dramatically cut down on hunting accidents.

Its members were the major firearms manufacturers, like Smith and Wesson; Sturm, Ruger and Co.; and Remington Arms Co., as well as retailers ranging from big sporting goods stores to small mom-and-pop dealers.

Starting in 1979, it began holding an annual major industry gathering, the SHOT Show, short for Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show. It quickly became the leading trade show for the industry, drawing major manufacturers eager to show off their latest firearms, along with companies hawking camouflage clothing and other outdoor equipment. By 1998, the SHOT show drew about 32,000 people, a number that would nearly double by 2013.

At the time of the lawsuits, the NSSF hadn’t bothered much with politics. Its members — the big gun companies — weren’t interested in getting in the news: They wanted to make and sell guns and ammunition.

Now the NSSF would step into a more public role to defend the industry from collapse.

“This was no skirmish,” recalled Doug Painter, then the NSSF’s executive director, in an official history of the organization. “It was the fight of our lives.”

To help support the industry’s legal battle, the NSSF set up the National Shooting Sports Heritage Fund, to which members would contribute 1 percent of their annual sales. About 70 companies signed up in 1999, and the NSSF said fund membership “more than doubled” over the next few years, generating millions of dollars.

The NSSF also set up a common legal team, the Firearms Litigation Support Committee, comprised of the gun companies’ lawyers, to coordinate a common defense strategy.

But perhaps the most significant effect of the lawsuits was to more closely align the industry with the NRA. For years, the groups had operated on parallel tracks: the industry focusing on company profits, and the NRA on the constitutional rights of gun owners.

Charlton Heston, then the NRA president, committed his support in an address to industry members at the 1999 SHOT Show: “For a century we have thrived independently, but now your fight has become our fight,” he said. “Your legal threat has become our constitutional threat.” He received a standing ovation.

The lawsuits ultimately fizzled. Only in New York, where a lawyer had previously brought a case charging 15 gun companies with negligence, was there a partial victory: Nine were convicted of “negligent marketing and distribution practices,” according to Outgunned: Up Against the NRA, a 2003 book by Peter Brown and Daniel Abel that chronicles the fight over gun control. Three companies, American Arms, Beretta USA and Taurus International, were assessed $500,000 in damages, to be split three ways.

When the danger was over, the NSSF stood as the dominant trade group for the industry. It was determined not to let such lawsuits happen again.

The Gun Industry is “Misunderstood”

On Dec. 14, 2012, Steve Sanetti, president of the NSSF, was preparing to board a flight to Europe when he saw reports of the Newtown school shooting on an airport television. He cancelled his trip and went back to the office.

“We figured that this would probably mean that the spotlight would be turned on our industry, as happens in incidents like this,” Sanetti said in a late-January interview with FRONTLINE. “We feel that we’ve done nothing wrong, that we are a responsible industry making responsible products for law-abiding citizens, actively promoting lawful and responsible gun ownership.”

A month after the shooting, the NSSF hosted, as planned, its annual SHOT Show, drawing a record 62,371 dealers, buyers and other industry representatives to the three-day event in Las Vegas. In a speech, Sanetti described the gun industry as “misunderstood.” “Easy to demonize among the ignorant, but we are the good people of America as well as they are!” he said. “We care deeply about the safety of our children.”

In his speech, Sanetti said the NSSF would participate in “any constructive dialogue” on the manufacture and use of firearms in the U.S. “But a prerequisite to such dialogue is an honest recognition of the legitimacy of what we do and the important part of the National culture which we represent,” he said. “Hunting and the recreational shooting sports are here to stay. And so are we.”

But even as it endorsed calls for dialogue, the NSSF was bracing for what many in the industry saw as its biggest threat since the 1999 lawsuits.

Speaking with “One Voice”

At that time, one of the first things the NSSF did as it fought the lawsuits was to make sure the industry was unified.

When Smith and Wesson broke with the other manufacturers and signed a comprehensive deal with the Clinton administration to, among other things, ship child locks with its guns and dedicate some of its profits to developing “smart guns” that only fire in the hands of their owners, the company was blasted by the industry.

Retailers discouraged their customers from buying Smith and Wesson guns, and according to reports at the time the company’s sales dropped by about half. Its chief executive received death threats before stepping down.

The company reneged on the deal with the White House, but it would be a few years before Smith and Wesson regained its footing — and its sales revenue.

The lesson seems to have stuck: When FRONTLINE reached out to Smith and Wesson for an interview about the new calls for gun regulation in the wake of the Newtown shooting, a company spokeswoman replied via email: “We feel it is essential for our industry to speak with one voice at this time, and we are therefore channeling our efforts through the National Shooting Sports Foundation.  We recommend that you contact them with any questions.”

“It’s Not An Idle Threat”

The NSSF’s financial clout remains only a fraction of what the NRA wields. According to 2010 expenditures by gun-issue nonprofits, the NRA and affiliates spent $277 million — $244 million by the NRA as compared to $25 million by the NSSF.

But in a 2010 economic impact report (pdf), the NSSF said that it planned to expand its lobbying efforts to defend the industry. In April 2010, it launched an NSSF PAC to support “pro-industry, pro-Second Amendment and pro-sportsmen candidates seeking election or re-election to federal office.”

Each year, the NSSF sponsors an annual fly-in, bringing industry executives to Washington to meet with congressional representatives. And while they don’t do a lot of lobbying on their own — they spent only $500,000 in 2012 — they often partner with the much more powerful NRA to get their message across. In the video, produced by the NSSF, an NRA executive member explains the two group’s close relationship.
 

 
In 2005, the NSSF claimed a major federal legislative victory. After helping to back pro-gun candidates for the past two elections, they were able to pass the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which bans lawsuits such as those filed in 1999.

It has also kept a close watch over state legislatures. In 2009, the NSSF shut down a Connecticut bill to require gun manufacturers to use microstamping. When a microstamped gun is fired, it prints a tiny number on the cartridge that is unique to that gun, making it easier to trace a bullet’s origin.

Jake McGuigan, an NSSF representative, raised questions before the Connecticut legislature about the costs inherent to requiring microstamping and the necessary database to track the bullets. “What type of fiscal impact would that have in these uncertain budget times?” he asked. “I don’t think it would be very good at all.”

Two years later, when the Connecticut legislature proposed a ban on high-capacity magazines, McGuigan again focused on the economic argument to make his case. In response to a question about whether he was making “idle threats,” he told lawmakers:

From the manufacturer’s standpoint, we did have two of the manufacturers that are based here in Connecticut specifically tell me that this will destroy their business. They will either have to move out of the state, because they do lose that commercial market and they will not be able to simply survive on their defense contracts or their law enforcement contracts. So it’s not an idle threat.

Both bills collapsed.

Working with the Regulator: A “Friendly Lawsuit”

While the NRA, which views any kind of regulation as an attack on Second Amendment rights, has lobbied hard to weaken the ATF, the government’s regulatory agency for firearms, the NSSF works closely with the agency.

The industry representatives and regulators meet quarterly, the NSSF said, to discuss concerns or problems. Sanetti said the two groups have an “excellent relationship,” and their periodic meetings lead to “full, frank and fair discussions.” Former ATF agents said that for many years they had found NSSF officials to be reasonable, business-minded advocates for the industry.

Together, the bureau and the NSSF promote “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy,” a public-relations program to discourage straw purchases, the illegal act of buying a gun for someone who is prohibited from doing so.

There’s also crossover in personnel: The NSSF has hired four former ATF officials as consultants to help firearms dealers stay compliant with federal regulations.

But the relationship has soured recently, according to these former ATF agents, who say the NSSF has taken a more adversarial stance toward the bureau.

Last year, the NSSF joined the NRA in suing the ATF over a new rule requiring dealers in states along the Mexican border — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — to report multiple rifle sales to a single buyer, to aid in its effort to combat drug violence along the border. The groups argue the requirement would put an undue burden on the dealers. Sanetti, in an interview, called it a “friendly lawsuit.”

The courts initially sided with the ATF; the NSSF is currently appealing the judgment.

The NSSF has also been promoting its PAC in the packets it sends to dealers for the “Don’t Lie” program. In a letter to the NSSF last year, the agency said sending out packets with PAC letters puts ATF employees in the position of potentially violating a federal law that prohibits government workers from using their office for political activism. In the letter, the ATF said it couldn’t include letters in its packet, but noted that the NSSF planned to continue doing so.

The ATF said it doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation and declined to make an official available for an interview for this story.

“Let Your Voice Be Heard”

Today, with new gun control legislation being considered in on the federal and local level, the NSSF is preparing to defend its constituents. But this time, instead of focusing on industry arguments, the group is using language much more closely aligned with the NRA’s gun owners.

“We hear loud and clear from the firearms community out there, of responsible firearms owners, that they feel unfairly maligned and attacked and threatened by what’s going on right now,” Sanetti said in an interview. “They are essentially saying … we need your help to protect the industry from unwarranted attacks.”

Sanetti said the NSSF wouldn’t consider endorsing any of the reforms proposed in the wake of Newtown, saying he opposes any “draconian” restrictions. Like the NRA, the NSSF has tried to reframe the conversation around responsible gun ownership rather than curtailing firearms availability.

And like the NRA, the NSSF says it supports supplying all necessary records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is required for firearms purchased through federally licensed dealers. States supply this information on a voluntary basis. To date, the NICS system is missing millions of records that could prevent people, such as those with serious mental health problems or a history of drug abuse, from buying firearms at licensed dealers, according to an analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nonprofit founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which shows the current gaps in each state.

Background checks aren’t required for those buying firearms at gun shows or through private sales, from one individual to another. Neither the NRA or the NSSF support expanding the requirement for background checks to those buyers.

Universal background checks would drive more business to licensed dealers, because everyone buying a firearm would be required to have their name run through the NICS database. It’s a move some dealers say they support, if only for the inevitable income boost, and most are members of the NSSF. But Sanetti said the NSSF doesn’t take a position on requiring background checks for “individual transfers,” or private sales.

The NSSF has been tracking all such pending bills nationwide, testifying in some states against any reforms, and reporting on developments to its constituents in its “Bullet Points” e-newsletter.

Ahead of a January hearing in Connecticut to debate potential new legislation, the NSSF organized a press conference with industry executives, who all spoke about their concern that new legislation would damage their businesses and by extension, the economy.

It also emailed an “action alert,” warning of the worst:

“Connecticut Legislators Seeking to Destroy Second Amendment; Bills Will Make CT Citizens Instant Criminals. Let Your Voice Be Heard or Face Banning of Your Rifles and Magazines.”

A Gun for Everyone

One of the NSSF’s most lasting achievements has been in marketing.

The NSSF was the driving force behind rebranding the AR-15-style rifle as a “modern sporting rifle” in 2009, a term nearly all manufacturers have since adopted.

“Household gun ownership has continued to drop,” explained Josh Sugarmann, director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group. “The traditional market of white males are getting older, they’re dying off.”

But the NSSF, in a study, found potential new buyers in the record number of retiring Baby Boomers, an additional estimated 40 million “lapsed” hunters who own guns but have stopped shooting, and a “large up and coming demographic of young extreme sports enthusiasts,” who might be persuaded to buy new firearms.

The NSSF focused on the AR-15, which Richard Burgess, the president of Connecticut Carry, a gun-rights group, described as “the most popular firearm by a long shot.” He said the weapon is affordable, easy to teach to beginners, including children, and appeals to veterans coming home because it’s the same as the military-issue M-16, without the automatic-fire component.

And dealers like the AR-15 because they’re money-makers: The guns have lots of extra accessories, and companies can market ever-newer models to the same customers. They even come in pink.

The NSSF launched a “national media campaign” to educate people about the new “modern sporting rifle” in an attempt to redefine the gun. “Trucks Have Changed Since Grandpa Got His. So Have Hunting Rifles,” one online poster declares. The campaign includes testimonials from hunters praising the AR-15 for prairie dog hunts and other small game.

In a video guide for older shooters, the NSSF warns of another reason to support ARs: “Remember, that if AR-15-style modern sporting rifles are banned, your favorite traditional-looking hunting or target shooting semi-automatic firearm could be banned, too.”

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