AN angry and exasperated President Obama, speaking to the nation last Thursday after the slaughter in Roseburg, Ore., made one oblique reference to the National Rifle Association, asking gun owners to question whether their “views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.”
It’s a fair question, and not only because the N.R.A. has single-handedly dictated the shape of the debate over guns for decades. Whether they own guns or not, Americans should understand the outsize role the N.R.A. plays, not only in thwarting sensible gun safety laws but also in undermining law enforcement by abetting gun traffickers, criminal gun dealers and criminal gun users.
The N.R.A., which claims some 4.5 million members, often professes to speak for all gun owners — hunters, sportsmen, collectors and ordinary Americans who keep guns for self-defense. But on some issues, most gun owners clearly reject the party line.
In 2012, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 87 percent of gun owners supported criminal background or “Brady” checks for all gun purchases. Following the December 2012 massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., another poll showed that 92 percent of Americans supported background checks for all buyers, including those buying on the Internet and at gun shows.
But by April 2013, when the Senate considered a bill to do just that, the N.R.A. campaign to defeat it was in full swing. The N.R.A. tagged the bill as a top priority and made clear that senators who opposed it risked receiving a low N.R.A. rating, which many of its single-issue supporters use in deciding how to vote, or a flood of negative television ads.
Licensed gun dealers slated to run the new background checks would have reaped millions, as thousands of new customers would have been sent to their stores. But like many members of Congress — who cower in fear of the ratings system and negative campaign advertising — the dealers knew not to cross the N.R.A. So the measure went down, with opponents arguing that criminals don’t bother submitting to background checks.
That story wasn’t quite accurate, though. Since some background checks were first implemented in 1994, gun dealers have turned away more than two million felons, drug users, unauthorized immigrants and other “prohibited persons,” according to a report by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
When the organization’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, calls the N.R.A. “one of the largest law enforcement organizations in the country,” nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider, for example, the federal law requiring licensed gun dealers to notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when a single purchaser buys two or more handguns within five days. The A.T.F. knows that multiple purchases are an indicator of trafficking, and that traffickers can evade the law by making a single purchase from five, 10 or 20 different gun stores. So why doesn’t the A.T.F. crosscheck those purchases? Because Congress, under pressure from the N.R.A., prevents the federal government from keeping a centralized database that could instantly identify multiple sales. Gun sale records are instead inconveniently “archived” by the nation’s gun dealers at 60,000 separate locations — the stores or residences of the nation’s federally licensed gun dealers, with no requirement for digital records.
Rather than preventing crimes by identifying a trafficker before he sells guns to potentially lethal criminals, the A.T.F. has to wait until the police recover those guns from multiple crime scenes. Then law enforcement officials can begin the laborious process of tracing each gun from the manufacturer or importer to various middlemen, the retail seller, the original retail purchaser and one or more subsequent buyers.
Meanwhile, dealers who work with traffickers are protected by another N.R.A.-backed measure that ensures that firearms dealers do not have to maintain inventories.
Think about that: A car dealer keeps an inventory to know when cars go missing so the police can track them down as quickly as possible. Why the lack of curiosity among gun dealers? Well, gun dealers must report lost and stolen guns to the A.T.F. because large numbers of missing weapons are a red flag for trafficking. Without an inventory requirement, it’s easier to sell guns off the books.