ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For decades, the politics of gun control have ignited visceral responses. And the NRA has been at the center of that debate. Now Corrinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio reports that a Wisconsin-based gun rights group is trying to lure members away from the NRA.
CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: Zee Martin bought a shotgun in the late 1970s after her home near Springfield, Mo., was burglarized. About 15 years later, she started buying more firearms and, eventually, started participating in gun competitions. She's been a member of the NRA for decades. And a little over a year ago, she joined the United States Concealed Carry Association. The West Bend, Wis., based group has been quietly building its membership since 2003. Organizers are aiming to get to the million-member mark. The group offers a product similar to the NRA, but the message is very different. Officials say they've replaced the NRA's legendary macho image with a brand that instead says, protect the family. And that appears to be resonating with gun owners like Zee Martin.
ZEE MARTIN: The NRA is a much broader perspective. And they are not as narrowly, tightly focused on personal protection and family protection as the USCCA organization is. That's really where USCCA shines, I think.
HESS: Tim and Tonnie Schmidt started the USCCA in their house 17 years ago, at first publishing a self-defense magazine. Tim says, when he and his wife started a family, he went through a self-defense awakening.
TIM SCHMIDT: I remember sitting in the hospital holding my young son in my arms thinking, my goodness, it's my responsibility to protect and defend this little guy. I got to figure out how to do it.
HESS: It took two years to publish a first magazine. Tim's engineering business paid the bills while the USCCA got off the ground. Eventually, the magazine grew along with the company. Self-defense education was added, and then legal protection was too. Today the group employs about 300 people and has more than 300,000 members. The NRA was founded nearly 150 years ago and has about 5 million members across the country. Its lobbying arm is both impressive and feared. Schmidt doesn't dispute that he's competing with the NRA.
SCHMIDT: If what the USCCA is doing can educate consumers and offer additional information and then causes the NRA to sharpen their pencils and do a better job, then, in the end, everyone wins.
HESS: Amy Hunter is a spokeswoman for the NRA. In a written statement, Hunter says, the NRA is in the business of protecting and expanding Second Amendment and hunting rights for all Americans.
USCCA members are offered three tiers of education and legal protection. Most people choose the middle package, which costs $30 a month and provides $1.1 million of coverage if a member needs an attorney after using a firearm. Chet Head lives in rural Benton, Ill. He recently dropped his NRA membership and says that legal protection is one of the reasons.
CHET HEAD: And in the event it's gone sideways enough you have to defend yourself or another human life, they are right there with you to say, hey. We're here to help you with the legal fallout, the civil fallout, the emotional fallout of having to defend yourself like this.
HESS: Kevin Michalowski is the executive editor of Concealed Carry Magazine. He says gun owners need the NRA to lobby for them. He says people appreciate the group's diversity and notes that 40% identify as Democrats.
KEVIN MICHALOWSKI: We are not divisive. We are not exclusive. We want everybody who wants to defend themselves to be part of this organization and to learn from us.
HESS: Schmidt says his current focus is get into that one-million-member mark.
SCHMIDT: A lot of people, when they hear anything about firearms, they think about the NRA - this mentality that, oh, it's from my cold, dead hand. We see the firearm as simply a very efficient tool to get to the end game, which is what we want - is just to protect our family and loved ones.
HESS: As we enter 2020 and gun control again becomes a national talking point, the NRA and USCCA will both be fighting for Second Amendment protections and for members.
For NPR News, I'm Corrinne Hess.
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