National rifle association gun lobby
(Image: Getty)

Over the last week, there has been a growing sense that Australia’s gun laws may be under threat.

On Saturday’s NSW election, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers — once considered a party of rogue gun nuts — picked up three seats in the NSW lower house. Two days ago, One Nation were exposed soliciting the National Rifle Association for millions of dollars to help weaken gun laws. And most recently, an explosive report from progressive think tank The Australia Institute claims that Australia’s gun lobby is as big as the NRA.

The report (commissioned by Gun Control Australia and left-wing lobby group GetUp) found that, when assessed on a per capita basis, Australia’s gun lobby spends as much as — if not slightly more than — the NRA on political campaigns. The report also found the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia had similar numbers of members as a proportion of the population. But while these claims are guaranteed to make headlines, the numbers alone don’t tell a complete picture of each gun lobby’s respective influence.

Are the sizes comparable?

The Australia Institute’s report finds that there is some relative comparison between the size of each country’s respective gun lobby groups. The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, for example, has 200,000 members; this amounts to 0.8% of the population. The size of the NRA’s membership, however, is unclear and contested. The NRA can never quite get its story straight, but likes to make reference to having 5 million members. It doesn’t release public records, and is not beyond counting deceased members among that number.

Researchers and journalists have used magazine subscriptions, which members get for free when they join, and tax records to try and get a more accurate picture. These records indicate that membership fluctuates from 3.7 million to 4 million, although there is evidence it increased substantially after the Parkland school shooting last year.

Proportionally, the NRA’s membership accounts for between 1.1% and 1.5% of the population — somewhat comparable to the percentage in Australia. Still, on pure numbers alone, the NRA dwarfs Australia’s gun lobby.

Who spends more?

The Australia Institute’s most interesting findings concern political expenditure. “Australia’s gun lobby is large and well-resourced, spending about the same amounts of money — accounting for population — as the NRA does in the United States,” report author Bill Browne says. 

By some metrics, the report actually found that Australian gun lobby groups narrowly outspent the NRA per-head. The Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), the peak lobby group representing gun suppliers, spent $2562 per 1 million Australians on political contributions in the 2015-2016 financial year. Meanwhile, in the two years leading up to the 2018 midterms, the NRA spent $2512 per 1 million Americans.

The report acknowledged that there are difficulties getting accurate data, mainly because of differing political disclosure requirements in Australia and the US. The Australia Institute’s report got its figures on US expenditure from Open Secrets — an NGO that collects information about lobbying based on election cycle. The numbers included what the NRA spent on political donations, as well as lobbying and “outside spending” — money spent independently of candidates’ committees.

The report does not look at the comparative resources of the two gun lobbies. The NRA boasts a revenue of more than $400 million. It’s unclear what SIFA’s exact revenue is, but according to the ABC it received $1.2 million since its founding in 2014. In 2017 alone, the the NRA received contributions of $171 million.

What about influence?

The Australia Institute’s report concedes that the Australian gun lobby’s influence on political debate is subtle. Even though Australia’s gun lobby is spending and campaigning like the NRA, it is far from having a comparable stranglehold of politics here.

It’s unclear how central money and donations actually are to the NRA’s power. The report notes that it was the 499th largest donor in the 2018 political cycle, and makes up a fraction of the donations US politicians actually receive. There’s also evidence the NRA is in increasing financial strife — in 2017 it experienced a $55 million loss and, before the midterms, its spend decreased and it laid off employees.

There remains a live debate over whether it is money and donations that make the NRA powerful, or something less tangible. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argues the NRA is “powerful because it is popular”. But according to Vox’s Charlotte Hill the “money doesn’t matter” argument frequently focuses on direct contributions and ignores outside spending, providing an incomplete picture.

The NRA’s power is likely not solely financially based. Although the organisation is increasingly unpopular across the country, Republicans remain deeply loyal to it. Pro-gun politics are entrenched deeply in the DNA of the American right in a manner profoundly different from Australia, where our strict gun laws remain overwhelmingly popular. Even if Australia’s gun lobby spends like the NRA, it will struggle to have a similar level of control over conservative politics.

It might be as comparatively as big as the NRA — but it’s not yet nearly as strong. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey