The National Rifle Association may be taking abeating in the public opinion polls since they began their post-Newtown offensive, but to hear the organization tell it, the tragedy has swelled their ranks , from 4.25 million to 4.5 million since the tragic mass shooting. While mainstream news organizations dutifully report the NRA‘s unverified figures, Mother Jones‘ Josh Harkinsonlays out a compelling case that the organization is, shockingly, overcompensating to the tune of about a million members by, among other things, continuing to count dead members.
You can draw a bright, straight line from the NRA’s clanging response to the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and their current slide in public opinion. This isn’t just some generalized wave of anti-gun feeling; six days after the shooting, and the day before Wayne LaPierre’s press conference, Public Policy Polling showed the organization with a positive favorability rating, 48 to 41. A few weeks later, the same poll had them at 42% favorable, vs. 45% unfavorable, and more recently, an ABC News/Washington Post poll has them at just 36% favorable, to 44% unfavorable.
The mainstream media, and the NRA, would like you to believe that those numbers are somehow counteracted by a “surge” of 250,000 in memberships to the organization, a number for which they provide no verification. Even if they did, however, reporting on this surge gives the misleading impression that there’s some parity in Americans’ reactions to the NRA’s post-Newtown actions, or even that the NRA is gaining in support. The fact is that, if you apply the polling numbers to the entire adult population, the NRA has lost the support of 28 million Americans since Wayne LaPierre began opening his mouth after the shootings, while the 250,000 members it claims to have gained represents one tenth of one percent of American adults.
According to Harkinson, though, there are compelling (some more than others) reasons to be skeptical of anything the NRA says about its membership numbers. He points to wild variances in published reporting of the group’s total membership, with gaps of up to two-and-a-half million in a matter of months:
Writing in 2000, when the NRA claimed to have 3.6 million members, journalist Osha Gray Davidson speculated on some of the group’s strategies for fluffing itself up:
Two years ago, David Gross, then an NRA board member, confided to me that a substantial number of the group’s 1 million Life Members are, well, dead. “There just isn’t that much incentive to go find out when someone passes away,” Gross explained. “Not when the cost of maintaining (a dead member) is minimal and when they add to your membership list.”
Who else is included in that figure of 3.6 million? I may be—although I haven’t been a member for years. Not long ago, I received an NRA form letter stating that in recognition of my previous commitment to the Second Amendment, the gun group had granted me an honorary membership. The mailing even included an NRA membership card embossed with my name.
The most damning piece of circumstantial evidence that the NRA is fluffing itself by over a million members, ironically, derives from the few magazines the NRA is willing to keep tabs on :
The NRA gives members a free subscription to one of four magazines: American Rifleman, American Hunter, America’s 1st Freedom, or NRA InSights. The first three magazines are audited by the Alliance for Audited Media , which as of July gave them a combined paid circulation (including newsstand sales) of 3.1 million. NRA InSightsis an online-only magazine for kids, with a circulation of 25,000 . Though some NRA members may opt out of a free magazine, it’s likely that others pay to subscribe to more than one of them. Add in the fact that non-NRA members can pick up the magazines on the newsstand, and the 3.1 million figure is almost certainly an upper-bound for the NRA’s true size.
If you aren’t convinced, consider that, as of Spring, 2012, the NRA itself could only boast an email list of two million members. Whether the other 2 million are dead, or freebies, or just Luddites, that self-admitted figure seriously undercuts the impression that people have of the NRA’s ability to reach people at a grassroots level.
The NRA has a vested interest in creating the impression that it speaks for 4.5 million Americans (still just a tiny fraction of the population, much smaller than the 28 million who represent their drop in favorability), but mainstream media organizations should not. Creating the impression of balance between the NRA and everyone else makes the story more dramatic, and perhaps inoculates against shrieks of “bias,” but it does not serve the public interest. If they’re going to swallow what the NRA is spoon-feeding them, journalists need to accurately reflect the numbers on the other side, in the same breath.