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The 'bottom-up' approach used to advocate for the Second Amendment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pro-Second Amendment advocacy is bottom-up, not top-down. That's what one staffer for a Republican senator once told our next guest. Stephen Gutowski has long-covered firearm policy and gun ownership for his publication, "The Reload." He's in Houston and joins us from the big NRA annual convention. Welcome.

STEPHEN GUTOWSKI: Hi. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: First, put that quote into context. Like, so much attention is paid to, like, the really big-name political speeches, like former President Trump, Senator Ted Cruz. But the strength of the NRA really lies in the everyday members, right?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the reason that the NRA is influential in our politics is not because of the money they give necessarily. It's more reliant on their membership, the fact that people will pay the NRA to be members and that millions of people will do that - upwards of 5 million people, which means that they can drive a lot of votes at the end of the day.

RASCOE: So what are some of those members saying as you talk to them there, especially in the wake of the horrific shooting in Uvalde?

GUTOWSKI: People here are not changing their perspective on gun politics. They very much believe in their Second Amendment rights and want the NRA to defend those rights. You know, at the same time, of course, they're offering their condolences and prayers to the victims. But in large part, it's very similar to previous NRA annual meetings.

RASCOE: A lot of times in the past, what has been heard is that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," quote-unquote. But the timeline in the Uvalde shooting is that there were some local law enforcement officers inside the elementary school just two minutes after the gunman. Like, is there any response to that?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. I mean, certainly you still hear that talking point. And there hasn't been much thus far addressing the police response. Respect for law enforcement is a big part of the NRA's platform. And obviously, a lot of those details have just come out recently, as well. So there hasn't really been much of a immediate reaction here.

RASCOE: You reported about the number of new gun owners surging. Can you talk about why that is and, like, why the NRA membership may not actually be reflective of gun owners as a whole?

GUTOWSKI: Yeah. I mean, we've seen gun ownership increase, especially in communities that have traditionally not been associated with gun ownership in America - minority communities, women, younger people, people who live in more urban areas. At the same time, the NRA's membership hasn't grown since, really, 2013. That was the first time they hit the 5 million member mark, and that's still the number that they claim.

RASCOE: I mean, is it accurate to say that the NRA, at this point, is reflective of, you know, white conservatism?

GUTOWSKI: I don't think it's that simple. But there's a demographic of conservative Republicans - I'm sure, skew more white than the average in the country - where they focus their attention on trying to appeal to them by talking about more than just gun rights. They talk about border security. They talk about COVID restrictions. That is something that, while it may drive more donations from that demographic, it's going to, of course, alienate other people who don't agree with every plank of the Republican Party's position.

RASCOE: Looking at the scene at the NRA convention, you have passionate Second Amendment supporters inside and then passionate gun reform advocates protesting outside. Do you see any movement outside of both sides?

GUTOWSKI: Honestly, I don't. Even if you just look at - from the very top, President Biden and former President Trump - their messages to the country have been blaming the other side for what happened, essentially, and retreating back to the same positions that have long been held by Republicans and Democrats. There may be common grounds in there, but I think it's becoming increasingly difficult to find those common grounds because so much of the political debate is focused on really attacking each other. Even if there were one policy that everybody could agree on and maybe it passes the Senate, that's not going to be something that's going to completely solve this issue because there's not one magic trick.

RASCOE: That's journalist Stephen Gutowski. He is founder of the publication "The Reload." Thank you very much for joining us.

GUTOWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.