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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Do Assault Weapons Sales Pay NRA Salaries?

A Connecticut Democrat didn’t get his facts straight when he claimed NRA executives “pay their salaries” by taking “a cut” of assault weapons sales.

In arguing that the NRA “represents gun manufacturers” and not “gun owners anymore,” Sen. Christopher Murphy discounted NRA membership dues as “less than half” of NRA funding and instead elaborated on how the NRA makes “tens of millions of dollars off of the purchases of guns.” He said, “They pay their salaries off of these gun purchases.”

But gun customers voluntarily decide if they want to contribute to NRA organizations when they purchase a gun, just as they voluntarily decide to join the NRA and pay dues. And much of the contributions made during gun sales is used to fund community programs, such as gun safety, law enforcement training and hunter education — not salaries.

Murphy, a freshman senator who replaced retired Sen. Joe Lieberman, made his remarks on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Murphy, Jan. 13: The fact is that the NRA does not represent gun owners anymore. This is not your father’s NRA. It represents gun manufacturers. Less than half of their funding comes from their members, and they make tens of millions of dollars off of the purchases of guns. But what your guest didn’t tell you is that every time — not every time, but when assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are bought in this country, often the NRA gets a cut of those sales through its round-up purchase program, where the purchase price is rounded up to the nearest dollar, and the NRA gets the difference. The NRA makes money. They pay their salaries off of these gun purchases. That is who they are representing in this debate.

The NRA Foundation and the NRA Institute of Legislative Action each operate separate fundraising programs that allow gun customers at participating gun stores to “round up” the purchase price to the nearest dollar as a contribution. Some customers may be asked instead, depending on the company making the sale, to “add a buck for shooting’s future” — much in the same way that some food stores ask for small donations to fight cancer or hunger when customers check out.

Let’s first look at the NRA Foundation, which provides grants for gun-related training and education programs. The foundation calls its program “Shooting for the Future,” and it includes 20 participating retail companies. The foundation says the money donated by gun customers goes “to support firearms safety education, wildlife conservation and other firearms related public service programs via The NRA Foundation.” Without being specific, the foundation says that “millions of dollars have been raised in this manner.”

The NRA Foundation’s 990 form filed with the IRS for 2010 shows it raised nearly $23.4 million in total revenue and provided more than 2,200 in grants for community programs for hunters, competitive shooters, gun collectors, law enforcement, and women and youth groups, including the Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs. In all, $21.2 million went for grants — most of it (nearly $12.6 million) to the NRA itself for “[e]ducation, training, range development, youth programs, [and] equipment,” while the rest went to the community programs and groups.

The NRA Foundation has no staff and pays no salaries.

The NRA-ILA, which is the lobbying arm of the NRA, operates a “round-up” program with fewer participating companies, although it has been in existence for longer. Its program was the brainchild of gun store owner Larry Potterfield, the founder and CEO of Midway USA in Missouri. In a video on his website, Potterfield says he started the program in 1992 and the money raised from his customers goes into the “Endowment for the Protection of the Second Amendment.” A few other companies have since joined the program, but Midway customers are still the largest contributors by far. In a Dec. 7, 2012, press release, the company said its customers have donated $7.6 million to the NRA lobbying group since 1992. The program has a balance of nearly $9.5 million, including contributions from gun customers at other stores, the press release says.

Potterfield says very little of that money has been spent to date. In his video, he says the NRA-ILA spends just 5 percent of the fund’s balance each year “to fight anti-gun legislation,” allowing the endowment fund to grow each year.

The National Rifle Association of America, on the other hand, reported $227.8 million in revenues in 2010 — nearly half of which came from member dues ($100.5 million) and program fees ($6.6 million).

This is not to say that the NRA does not benefit from gun sales. It does. Not only does it receive contributions from willing gun customers at the point of purchase, but gun manufacturers are major contributors to the NRA. Smith & Wesson in May became a member of the NRA’s “Golden Ring of Freedom,” which is for donors who contribute more than $1 million. In 2008, the Beretta Group — another “Golden Ring of Freedom” member — exceeded $2 million in donations.

In one case, the gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Company tied its donations directly to gun sales in a program called the “Million Gun Challenge.” According to an April 2012 press release, Ruger promised to donate $1 to the NRA-ILA for each gun it sold over the course of a year, from May 2011 to May 2012. The “Million Gun Challenge” exceeded its goal and raised $1.25 million.

Murphy would have been on safer ground to cite the “Million Gun Challenge” as an example to support his claims about the NRA, rather than “round-up” programs that are funded by gun customers and help support community programs.

— Eugene Kiely