2020 was a gangbusters year for gun sales with a likely 20 million total gun sales. And the gun industry has been willing to say this is a strong sign of future support for gun rights going forward. An August press release from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) even inferred that at least 5 million new gun owners had been created by late 2020 and that “These first-time buyers represent a group of people who, until now, were agnostic regarding firearm ownership. That’s rapidly changing, and these Americans are taking hold of their God-given right to keep and bear arms and protect themselves and their loved ones.” So does it follow that strong gun sales in 2020 are going to translate into strong(er) support for gun rights from the public?
That is probably what the leadership of the The National Rifle Association (NRA) would be hoping for. The NRA is having a moment lately. The future (and leadership) of the organization is uncertain. And even gun control organizations are targeting the NRA’s internal woes to weaken its overall membership. However, the NRA often touts the fact that it has millions of due-paying members who are willing to put in time and money for gun rights. These members arguably help explain what makes the NRA a political force rather than what many assume to be just “dollars and cents” in elections. So, despite all the legal issues the NRA faces, it would be very welcome news for them if increased demand in gun sales could be translated into a new pool of gun rights advocates. Even if the NRA was legally dissolved in the NY court case (a worst-case scenario for sure), those members would still exist and likely join whatever spiritual successor to the NRA there might be.
The NRA is pretty cagey about sharing their membership numbers, but there is a potential proxy that can be used to estimate how many people have an NRA membership: the number of people subscribed to NRA publications (Mother Jones has an interesting comparison between NRA claimed membership numbers and the the subscription numbers). The logic goes something like this- When someone joins the NRA they get one subscription to a NRA magazine (American Hunter, American Rifleman, America’s First Freedom, or Shooting Illustrated). Not all members opt in, but members are ostensibly the only ones getting these magazines (excluding things like libraries). The NRA provides these subscription numbers for advertising purposes so it would follow this is a reasonable measure of people affiliated with NRA who read what the NRA has to say about guns.
Using those numbers, here’s the overall picture of NRA “members” since 1982.
If 2020, the year with the most gun sales ever on record, was supposed to translate into increased support for gun rights then those new supporters haven’t been joining the NRA (and getting those complimentary magazines). The number of NRA magazine subscriptions in 2020 was around 3.7 million, down from around 3.9 million in 2019 (which was also the peak of NRA magazine subscriptions). Put another way, if 20 million guns were sold in 2020 (a plausible and conservative estimate) and the NSSF estimates there was at least 5 million new gun owners (by August of 2020), its remarkable that the NRA saw a subsequent decrease in its overall magazine subscriptions (which, again, are typically available only to its members).
Now for an important caveat here. There are still a LOT of NRA members in 2020 when one looks at the overall historical trends. The decline from 2019 to 2020 may just be a blip before seeing an increase in 2021. Especially since the NRA uses political threats to drum up support for its goals and membership (which a Biden administration and Democratic Congress will provide useful foils for). The NRA still has many more members than it had during times when it proved to be politically influential, such as the 1994 midterm elections, the 2000 elections, and its likely influence in supporting Donald Trump in 2016.
But still, 20 million gun sales, and NRA membership appears to not be growing in similar proportion. I don’t know how to square that circle without saying its pretty much bad news for the NRA.