How Close Are The NRA And Gunmakers, Really?

Steve Inskeep speaks with Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, who has been investigating the relationship between the gun industry and the National Rifle Association. Gunmakers and the gun lobby are often seen as partners, in lock step. But Barrett says the relationship is not always so amicable.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we're going to talk about an uneasy alliance in the fight over gun control. The gun industry makes weapons. The National Rifle Association is a leading voice for gun rights. They share common interests, of course, but it's emerging that they may not always have the same opinions about fighting the change in gun laws.

Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek has been talking with gun makers.

What is it you think has been overlooked about the - whatever you want to call it - the gun lobby, the gun industry, gun rights advocates, what did you discover?

PAUL BARRETT: It's becoming almost conventional wisdom that the reason the NRA goes to such extremes is that it is driven by the gun industry. And in fact, that understanding is just incorrect. If anything, it is the NRA that sets the terms of the debate and the gun industry basically obediently follows along.

INSKEEP: What are some things that the National Rifle Association has said in recent months that have caused people in the gun industry who talked to you to cringe?

BARRETT: Well, the most specific thing has been the series of performances by Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and longtime head of the NRA, who has taken the group to what I would describe as a new extreme in terms of its pugnacious stance in the wake of the Newtown Elementary School massacre. And I think many people in the gun industry, given a choice, would not take the conspiratorial sort of paranoid approach that LaPierre specializes in. That said, they are doing nothing to try to deter him - for two reasons. One, they're afraid of the consumer boycotts that the NRA can organize if it chooses. And two, the NRA's hype actually does benefit the gun industry.

INSKEEP: Is that a real possibility, that the NRA could organize a boycott of Smith & Wesson or some other brand of firearm?

BARRETT: It's not just a real possibility; it's something that has happened in the past. In 2000, which really was the last time before the current round of debate that we had a live gun control debate at the national level. Smith and Wesson actually tried to step up and arrive at a truce with the Clinton administration and with government officials around the country who were suing the gun industry. And Smith & Wesson agreed to settle those lawsuits and to comply with an unprecedented level of regulation. The result of that was that the NRA, other gun rights groups, encouraged gun buyers to boycott Smith & Wesson. In the space of six to eight months, the company almost went out of business. Plants were shut down, production lines were closed, and ultimately, the company changed ownership, reneged on the settlement and was accepted back into the fold. This is not a theoretical possibility. This is what happens when you cross the NRA.

INSKEEP: Are there specific reforms - if we want to call them that - that gun manufacturers would sign on to if the NRA was not in the way of them doing so?

BARRETT: It's more question of whether they would object. One of the main proposals pending before Congress, and in fact, the White House has identified this as its top priority, is to make the background check system comprehensive, so that it would be legally required for all gun transactions to go through some type of computerized background check.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

BARRETT: In fact, the gun industry is basically agnostic on that point. It's not that they're going to stand up and cheer in favor of it, but almost their entire stock and trade is already done through the licensed background check system. So the gun industry would just basically stand by and say very little if it were purely up to them. But they're not going to stand up and get into a fight with Wayne LaPierre in public.

INSKEEP: Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek, thanks very much.

BARRETT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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