If the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America uses sportsmen to advance a pro-development agenda at the expense of habitat, the National Rifle Association uses them to advance a pro-gun position. But hunters are apparently wising up, at least to the NRA, and that may be leading to the group's decline.
Membership has dropped from 3.2 million
to 2.8 million in the past few years, while the investment firm
Dunn & Bradstreet recently gave the group the lowest possible
credit rating. NRA officials dismiss those two problems as
stastical and accounting flukes, but have had a hard time refuting
rumors of instability among the group's leadership. According to
reports in the national media, Neal Knox, the board's most vocal
hardliner on the right to bear arms, has been trying to oust some
NRA leaders, including executive vice president Wayne
If successful, Knox's "coup" would
signal yet another swerve to the right for the gun group, says
Ernest Lissabet, president and founder of the American Firearms
Association, an alternative to the NRA. Founded in 1993, and
calling itself the "NRA refugee club" on its World Wide Web site,
the AFA has its headquarters in the same town - Fairfax,
Lissabet says the NRA has gone through three
shifts since its founding in 1871. Up through World War II, the
group worked closely with the National Guard to train a citizens'
militia. After the war, the group became more of a sportsmen's
The third shift came after the NRA's
annual meeting in 1979, when Neal Knox and Harlon Carter, dubbed
"old bullethead" by his enemies, took control of the organization's
leadership. They steered the NRA away from hunters' concerns and
A large-scale membership drive
began as the group began to rail against the gun-control lobby.
Membership swelled in the next 15 years, from about 800,000 to more
than 3 million, and expanded to include cops, prison guards, gun
collectors and women. But many critics say the growth cost the NRA
its core group - people who like weapons because they hunt with
"The NRA's membership has been politicized
and radicalized," says Lissabet, adding that the changes sent many
of the more moderate sportsmen packing.
turned those hunters off? Some say it was the group's no-compromise
stance on gun control - even supporting access to assault rifles
and to bullets that can pierce body armor. Vice president LaPierre
- though moderate on gun control - also called federal agents
"jack-booted government thugs."
"The NRA has
paid a price," says Lissabet. "It's lost its original membership.
Sportsmen are now turning to groups like the Isaak Walton League
and Ducks Unlimited."
NRA spokesman Bill Powers
denies that hunter participation in the group has declined, and he
says the group does just as much for sportsmen as it ever
Lissabet maintains the group isn't facing
reality. He says gun control will become more and more necessary as
the population increases and rural areas become scarcer: "Their
whole approach right now is to fight everything tooth and nail.
That's not going to work in the 21st century."