INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The nation's largest gun rights organization was pivotal in President Donald Trump's victory in 2016.
Three years later, the National Rifle Association is limping toward the next election divided and diminished.
It's a reversal that has stunned longtime observers and raises questions about the one-time kingmaker's clout heading into 2020 as Trump and Vice President Mike Pence headline the group's annual convention in Indianapolis on Friday.
The NRA is "getting stronger & stronger and doing some really great and important work," Trump tweeted before leaving the White House for the convention.
Gun control advocates disagree, saying the NRA is losing support.
"I've never seen the NRA this vulnerable" said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control measures.
In the months after Trump's election, the NRA seemed on top of the world. After pouring tens of millions of dollars into the presidential race, its dark horse candidate occupied the desk in the Oval Office. Republicans controlled both branches of Congress. And the emboldened group had ambitious plans for easing state and national gun regulations.
Instead, much of the legislation the group championed has stalled, due, in part, to a series of mass shootings, including the massacre at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead and launched a youth movement against gun violence that has had a powerful impact.
At the same time, the group is grappling with infighting, bleeding money and facing a series of investigations into its operating practices, including allegations that covert Russian agents seeking to influence the 2016 election courted its officials and funneled money through the group.
As Trump landed in Indianapolis, a judge imposed an 18-month prison term on gun rights activist Maria Butina, an admitted Russian agent who tried to infiltrate American conservative groups.
And then there's the simple fact that, with Trump in office, gun owners no longer fear the Second Amendment is under attack.
"Good times are never good for interest groups because it's much better when Armageddon is at your doorstep," said Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor who has written extensively on gun politics. "Fear is a huge motivator in politics."
The NRA, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and expert on gun policy, has also dramatically changed its messaging over the last two years, with its NRATV service advocating a panoply of far-right political views that have turned off some members.
At the same time, public sentiment has shifted. A March AP-NORC poll found that 67% of Americans overall think gun laws should be made stricter — up from 61% in October 2017.
And a June 2018 Gallup poll found overall favorable opinions of the NRA down slightly from October 2015, from 58% to 53%. Unfavorable views have grown, from 35% to 42%.
Views of the NRA have also become increasingly partisan over decades of Gallup polling, and in the last few years as well. In 2018, just 24% of Democrats had a favorable opinion. Favorable views among Republicans in 2018 were at a record high, Gallup found.
Against that backdrop, Democratic politicians have become more comfortable assailing — and even actively running against — the NRA and pledging action to curb gun violence. And gun control groups like Everytown, which is largely financed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a political action committee formed by Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman wounded in a shooting, have become better organized and more visible, especially at the state level.
That reversal was made clear during the 2018 midterm elections, when those groups vastly outspent the NRA .
During the midterms, the NRA "committed almost a disappearing act," said Everytown's Feinblatt.
Winkler, the UCLA law professor, allowed that the group had scored some victories under Trump, including the appointment of two Supreme Court justices who may be open to striking down gun laws.
But overall, he said, "On the legislative front, the NRA has been frustrated," with top priorities like national reciprocity for conceal carry laws and a repeal of the ban on silencers stalled.
Instead, Trump introduced a new federal regulation: a ban on bump stocks after a man using the device opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on the Las Vegas strip in Nevada, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds.
That didn't seem to bother the NRA members who were beginning to arrive at the convention Thursday and insisted the group remains as influential as ever.
"Why do you think Trump and Pence are coming here?" asked Roger Frasz, a lifetime NRA member and gun shop owner in Prescott, Michigan, who was wearing a red "Trump 2020" hat.
Alan Jacobson, 24, an airport worker who lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, said he relies on the NRA to inform him about issues and considers them not only relevant, but essential.
"We're just average people that congressmen won't listen to," he said. "The NRA is our voice."
Still, Mike Cook, who works at a shipyard in Alabama, said he's been disappointed that gun rights haven't seen much movement under Trump. The bump stock ban, in particular, upset him because it was done administratively by Trump officials.
He's uncertain if the millions spent on Trump's campaign in 2016 were worth it. But, he said, Trump is "better than the alternatives."
Exactly how much influence the group will wield in 2020 remains unclear. The NRA, its policy arm and its political committee did not respond to requests for comment this week. But Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's managing director of public affairs, has said recent reports of turmoil and financial troubles have been exaggerated and are fueled by anti-gun forces.
Still, the NRA is having financial issues, according to an analysis of tax filings by The Associated Press. The tax-exempt organization's 2016 and 2017 filings, the most recent years available, show combined losses of nearly $64 million. Income from membership dues plunged about $35 million in 2017. And revenue from contributions, grants and gifts dropped about $35 million.
NRA insiders and longtime observers have described an organization at war with itself — a divide that erupted very publicly recently when the NRA sued its longtime public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, accusing it of refusing to hand over financial records to account for its billings. That could affect the group's messaging heading into 2020.
But even if the group cuts back from the record $412 million the NRA's nonprofit wings spent during the 2016 election year (that's in addition to the $30 million two NRA political action committees invested in electing Trump), the group is expected to be an active spender in the election.
Pane reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko, Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
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