NRA go-to adviser for gun rights activists

Lisa Marie Pane
The NRA's aggressive tactics in shaping debate has made it the go-to group for global gun-rights

The recent revelation that National Rifle Association representatives had met with Australian politicians to discuss talking points after a mass shooting generated outrage from various politicians.

The reality is the NRA has been exerting its influence on gun debates outside the US for a number of years, exporting its firebrand rhetoric and belief that more guns will lead to less crime.

The lobbying group has sought sway at the United Nations to make it easier to sell American guns overseas and has on more than one occasion guided gun-rights groups in Australia, Brazil, Canada and elsewhere.

It advised gun activists in Russia, entanglements that in recent years made the NRA vulnerable to allegations it allowed alleged Russian operatives to use the organisation to influence American politics.

American gun-rights are enshrined in the US Constitution - something that doesn't translate to most countries around the world - but the group's track record of aggressively shaping the debate has nevertheless turned it into the go-to group for gun rights activists outside the US

A documentary aired last month by Al Jazeera reported officials with Australia's far-right One Nation party met with two NRA representatives and other gun-rights advocates seeking money to undermine Australian gun laws.

During the meeting, captured on video by an undercover journalist posing as a gun lobbyist, they ask the NRA officials for advice on how to respond after a mass shooting. They're told to start with silence and then if it persists, to go on the offensive.

The NRA said it met with the Australians but did not provide any of the requested money sought at the meeting.

There are several reasons why the NRA doesn't confine itself to the US but the main one is that when other countries ease restrictions, it helps bolster one of the NRA's most prominent messages.

"They can make the argument, you know, 'Look, other nations don't like stricter gun laws either,' because one of the debate points that has hurt the NRA is that pretty much every other democratic nation has stricter gun laws than us and lower gun ownership," said Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and a longtime watcher of the NRA.

The NRA has a long overseas track record.

Perhaps its biggest success has been in Brazil, where the NRA worked with activists there to help reject a referendum in 2005 that would have banned the sale of firearms and ammunition to civilians.

Working with gun-rights activists in that country, the NRA helped shape the debate. A turning point, some observers have said, was a television ad that flashed scenes from key moments in history: Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela's release from prison. The ad emphasised gun rights as a fundamental right to freedom and liberty.

Brazil has a low rate of gun ownership - an estimated 2 million among its 59 million residents - and gun control was backed by the Roman Catholic church and other powerful forces in the country. One poll a month before the referendum put support for it at a stunning 73 per cent. It was rejected handily.

Canada's own gun-rights movement has been closely tied to the NRA. Its leaders have pushed the message that gun restrictions would interfere with a citizen's right to bear arms. When Canada first sought to restrict gun access in the 1990s, the NRA threatened a boycott by American hunters spending tourism dollars in the country.

The NRA also has worked closely to advise such groups as the Canadian Shooting Sports Association on how to lobby against that country's registry of gun owners. It took more than a decade but Canada's gun registry was ultimately repealed in 2012.

Gun-control advocates said the Australia lobbying was a classic NRA strategy and not surprising considering its involvement in foreign gun debates.

"It's the two-step playbook: It's one, silence, and two, if the pressure gets too hot, to deflect by arguing that we shouldn't politicise a shooting by talking about policies that could prevent these shootings from happening in the future," said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun-control group named after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was seriously injured after being shot during a constituent meeting in 2011.

Gun-rights supporters viewed it differently.

"While it came across on the Al Jazeera clips as manipulative, it's Defence 101 and I don't think it's unreasonable at all," said Jeff Knox, an NRA member and director of the Firearms Coalition, adding: "It is such a difficult situation because you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

"When some horrific act is perpetrated by some deviant, if you immediately come out and say something in defence or support of the right to arms, then you're heartless and you're politicising this tragic event. But at the same time, the other side does not hesitate to jump out."