Gunning for the World
Gunning for the World
Once just a club for red-blooded American gun owners, the National Rifle Association has become a savvy global lobby. It presses for gun rights at the United Nations. It assists pro-gun campaigns from Sydney to São Paulo. And it has found that its message—loving freedom means loving guns—translates into almost every language.
The ad starts with a sober, simulated news report. A news anchor, looking directly into the camera, warns viewers about Brazil’s proposed gun ban. “People are misrepresenting the disarmament issue,” she says. “It won’t disarm criminals.” The anchor fades and a news-on-the-march montage begins, highlighting freedom’s red-letter days. Nelson Mandela is released from prison. A single man impedes a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall falls. “Your rights are at risk,” says the anchor, returning after the inspiring film clips. “Don’t lose your grip on liberty.” And then, to bring the message home, archival footage runs of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets, restoring popular rule after more than two decades of dictatorship.
The ad was the first in a series that aired on Brazilian prime-time television last October, when both sides of the country’s gun control debate engaged in a heated exchange about the future of gun laws in South America’s largest democracy. Proponents of the gun ban proposed outlawing the commercial sale of arms and ammunition to civilians, capping a series of controls enacted in recent years. Unless you were a police officer, a soldier, or a private security guard, you wouldn’t be allowed to acquire a gun or the bullets to fire one. The idea was promoted by nongovernmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, adopted by two presidential administrations, and then delayed for years due to the lobbying efforts of Brazil’s arms manufacturers. Finally, it was to come to a vote, the first time any country held a popular referendum on gun laws.
But Brazil’s gun poll was never just about Brazil. Brazil was merely the most recent battleground state in a raging global debate over gun rights. A week before the vote, the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which represents more than 500 gun control organizations worldwide, coordinated an international day of support for the Brazilian ban. Demonstrations took place in Britain, Italy, South Africa, and Turkey, among other countries. Passage of the ban, IANSA said, would “reinforce the movement in favor of gun control in other Latin American countries riddled with armed violence, and back the efforts to control private gun ownership at [an] international level.”
Polling numbers heading into the last month of the campaign gave gun control advocates every reason to be optimistic. As late as mid-September, support for the proposed ban was running at 73 percent, thanks in part to the backing of the federal government, the Roman Catholic Church, and Globo TV, a large media conglomerate. Yet, when Brazilians went to the mandatory polls on October 23, they handed the international gun control movement one of its most stinging defeats, rejecting the ban by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. The number of civilians in Brazil who legally own a gun is estimated to be only about 2 million. In other words, some 59 million Brazilians voted to preserve a prerogative the vast majority of them will never enjoy.
There was no single reason for the landslide defeat. Many voters voiced their discontent with a government mired in a corruption scandal. Others distrusted the government’s pitch to disarm because they distrust the government. But few doubt that the ad campaign made the difference. During the three weeks the ads ran, support for the ban plummeted. “They didn’t talk about guns,” says Guaracy Mingardi, a São Paulo-based crime researcher affiliated with the United Nations. “They talked about rights.”
The idea that owning a gun is a human right as dear as, say, the freedom to protest, was new to most Brazilians. But the rhetoric used in the Brazilian commercials echoed talking points used by local pro-gun groups in Australia, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. Such a line of argument might not exist if not for the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), which had shaped, tested, and honed the message before many of these groups ever existed. The NRA, perhaps America’s most powerful political lobby, serves as spiritual godfather to gun groups around the world. Nor does it see its pro-gun agenda as one that stops at the water’s edge. Indeed, shortly before the vote, NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said, “We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement. If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next.”
The NRA may not be actively funding gun lobbies around the world—the organization claims its charter prohibits it—but its influence is felt in much more than dollars. It lends support to the anti-gun control effort at the United Nations. It promotes lines of argument, strategy, and political tactics that others adopt for local use. And, if you contact the association, its representatives will come to explain how to get it done. Although many of the NRA’s members may not own a passport, their leaders are savvy operators in international politics. For all their red-blooded American pretensions, they have a deep understanding of how globalization works. “We live in a very globalized society,” says Thomas Mason, the American gun lobby’s top representative at the United Nations. “[Y]ou can’t say what happens in Scotland doesn’t affect the United States, because it does.”
From handguns to shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, there are an estimated 600 million small arms in the world, a majority of them in private hands. For many, firearms are one of the great destabilizing elements in the developing world, at the root of conflicts in Africa, banditry in Latin America, and the proliferation of criminal enterprises around the world. In Brazil alone, according to one estimate, violence, most of it gun-related, saps more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
In the late 1990s, a loose affiliation of development and antiviolence nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and academics came together to curtail the largely unregulated trade in small arms and light weapons. This broad coalition had reason to believe their effort could be a success: Earlier in the decade, they had quickly formed an international consensus against the use of land mines. In 1997, 122 countries signed onto the Ottawa Convention, a global treaty that prohibits the production and use of the explosives and outlines a plan for their destruction. Many of the same groups now sought another killer to vanquish. “What we got at the end of the Cold War was a relief from the obsessive focus on the nuclear threat, and then it became possible to see other threats, like the weapons actually killing hundreds of thousands of people every year,” says IANSA Director Rebecca Peters.
On average, 38,000 people are killed in Brazil each year by firearms, principally handguns. It’s for this reason that the global gun control movement long considered Brazil a potential showcase for the positive effects of curbing legal access to arms. And, ahead of last October’s gun-ban vote, all signs suggested the tide was moving in their direction. Brazil’s last two presidential administrations embraced U.N. gun control recommendations and, between 1997 and 2003, the Brazilian congress passed some of the most restrictive gun legislation in the democratic world. Since 2004, a buy-back program collected and destroyed more than 400,000 weapons. The number of homicides in Brazil fell by 8 percent in 2004, the first drop in 13 years, which gun control advocates attribute to the new measures.
This same string of events was at least partly responsible for the NRA’s arrival in Brazil. In August 2003, Charles Cunningham, a top lobbyist for the group’s Institute for Legislative Action, traveled to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to address sports shooting organizations, gun collectors, and other gun rights advocates. At the time, the Brazilian congress was months away from passing a new round of gun restrictions, and Brazil’s smattering of pro-gun groups were ill-prepared to do much about it. One of the groups in attendance was the Rio-based National Association of Gun Owners and Retailers, the closest approximation to a Brazilian NRA. The group’s membership rolls stood at 1,200 in 1998. But, just five years later, they were down to 400 members. The pro-gun movement, to the degree it existed at all, was dispirited. “We didn’t have the necessary number of members to start an efficient campaign of any kind,” explains Leonardo Arruda, the group’s spokesperson. “So people began to quit.”
The group that invited Cunningham and hosted the events, the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, wasn’t faring any better. A far-right religious and nationalist organization, its influence lapsed with the demise of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985. None of Brazil’s other pro-gun groups had much of a presence outside shooting ranges and the Internet. Nor did Brazil’s arms industry take the ragtag collection of gun enthusiasts seriously, preferring to work directly behind the scenes with politicians.
Reflecting the organizers’ underdog anxieties, Cunningham’s talks were billed as offering “effective pro-gun strategies in an anti-gun culture.” Several hundred people attended in each city. Cunningham spoke about the U.S. Constitution and the history of the NRA’s growth. Gun owners, he explained, had to be centrally coordinated, yet locally represented in every region. It was important for gun groups to put aside their differences and fight disarmament with one voice. They should remember that disarmament only favored criminals. Gun control, Cunningham told them, is about more than guns: “It is about freedom.” The speeches ended in applause.
Some pro-gun activists stayed away from the talks. They didn’t want to be seen as anything but homegrown. But it was the first time any sizeable collection of gun groups had gathered together to talk strategy. “It was important because [Cunningham] was kind of a catalyst,” says Lincoln Tendler, editor of Magnum, Brazil’s only gun magazine. “It made people feel better. If it worked for the Americans, it could work for us.”
Spreading the Word—Quietly
It hasn’t worked for just the Americans, of course. During the last couple decades, the NRA has assisted gun rights advocates in fighting anti-gun legislation in Australia, Britain, and Canada. Australia was one of the NRA’s earliest foreign venues, and where it made the biggest impact.
In the early 1990s, as Australia began tightening its gun control laws, the head of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia (SSAA) twice visited the NRA’s headquarters outside Washington, D.C., to absorb lobbying and public relations know-how. (The NRA picked up $20,000 worth of his travel expenses.) In return, in 1992, the Australians welcomed then NRA President Robert Corbin, who embarked on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. Corbin met privately with pro-gun interests and gave media interviews. Part of his objective was to soften the violent image of the American gun lobby among the Australian public. Still, he was anything but delicate when encouraging Australian gun advocates to adopt hardball political tactics, if they cared about keeping their weapons. “They call us the Evil Empire and they hate us,” Corbin said of the NRA’s opponents. “But we win.”
As was the case in Brazil, the Australian visit helped catalyze the country’s gun rights movement, but to a more obvious extent. The Australian group launched its own legislative action institute in 1993, inspired by the NRA’s lobbying arm. Australian gun owners even organized the Australian Shooters Party, and in 1995 won a seat in the New South Wales state parliament—reportedly the only legislator in the world elected solely on a pro-gun platform.
Yet the NRA’s Australian excursion did little to endear itself to the Australian public at large. Their link to the NRA has marked the Sporting Shooters’ Association for easy criticism, especially in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, where a man shot and killed 35 people at a tourist area in Tasmania. “The general public only sees what’s in the media,” says Jeanine Baker, president of the SSAA’s South Australia chapter, “and usually that’s the extreme side of the NRA.” Baker doesn’t believe the NRA is extreme, but “outspoken”—because it has to be, she says.
Some uneasiness about NRA influence cropped up in Canada in 2001, when some gun owners there became concerned about the association’s close ties to the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action (CILA), another gun lobby modeled on the NRA’s lobbying arm. In an e-mail to members, Executive Director Tony Bernardo justified the relationship. The NRA, he said, was “instrumental in the formation of CILA” and provides “tremendous amounts of logistic support.” He added that, although the NRA’s charter prevented it from providing money, “[t]hey freely give us anything else.”
The Canadian link is still close. In December, an NRA official was scheduled to offer a “legislative training workshop” at the annual meeting of CILA’s parent organization. “How do we protect our rights?” went the promo for the event. “By being more politically active and effective at the grassroots [level]. And who better to show us how than the most powerful lobby group in the world, the National Rifle Association and their Institute for Legislative Action.”
The NRA mostly prefers not to talk about its international operations. “[W]e don’t discuss the content of private meetings,” says the NRA’s Arulanandam. And it generally downplays what is by all appearances an increasingly international role. That’s hardly surprising, for two reasons. Its members tend to be traditional conservatives, whose views on matters of foreign policy steer toward the isolationist. “We’ve helped where we can,” Arulanandam concedes, “but we’re committed to the preservation of rights in this country.” Further, the NRA probably understands better than anyone that its muscular, America-first image doesn’t go over very well overseas, especially at a time when anti-American feeling runs so high abroad. Jairo Paes de Lira, a São Paulo gun rights activist, says communication with the NRA dried up well in advance of the gun-ban vote, essentially by an unspoken mutual understanding. “We’re both on the same side, but we didn’t want to give the impression that there was this foreign influence in the referendum,” he says.
For this reason, one of the NRA’s simplest sources of influence on groups overseas may be as a global pro-gun think tank. Gun rights activists surf NRA sites looking for research, statistics, or leading thinkers who advance arguments that might help their cause. One such advocate promoted heavily on the NRA’s Web site is John Lott Jr., an American economist who caused a furor in the United States when he argued that the more guns there were in a society, the lower the crime rate. When his 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime appeared in Portuguese, Brazilian gun rights activists adopted it as a sort of anti-gun control bible. One enthusiastic gun rights activist in São Paulo bought 1,500 copies and distributed one to each member of the Brazilian congress. Denis Mizne, executive director of Sou da Paz, a São Paulo-based gun control organization, says he has seen many Brazilian pro-gun materials translated directly from the NRA’s promoted materials. “To adopt the line and the concepts, it’s easy,” he says. “You just go to the [NRA’s] Web site.”
But the NRA has hardly settled for a passive approach in advancing its agenda overseas. Otherwise, it wouldn’t need a presence at the United Nations.
Showdown at the U.N. Corral
When Thomas Mason arrived at the United Nations, diplomats weren’t greeted by the swaggering cowboy they had expected. The former Oregon state representative is the American gun lobby’s emissary to the United Nations and other international forums. Over the past decade, he has developed a reputation as a canny strategist and cordial operator, despite the fact that he works in territory that could only be described as hostile.
In a 2004 televised gun debate held in London, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said that his group’s presence at the United Nations should be considered oppositional, not participatory. Again, it’s a message the NRA repeats for its dyed-in-the-wool conservative members who view international institutions such as the United Nations with skepticism. Mason’s tenacity and diplomatic instincts, however, have made the NRA an active and well-represented player in the world body. The 61-year-old lawyer is always “looming” over whatever is happening, says Peters of IANSA, to make sure he’s always part of the process. For his own part, Mason views the NRA’s presence as fair play in what he calls a “cultural war.” Any symbolic victory for gun control at the United Nations, he says, represents a tactical advantage elsewhere. Letting an international body make even minimal declarations about domestic gun ownership would be one of those victories. “It would delegitimize firearms on a world stage,” he says. The opposite, of course, is true as well. That’s why the defeat of the Brazilian gun ban, rejected by nearly 65 percent of voters, was a major defeat for the gun control movement. “[I]n the real political world, 65 percent is Pearl Harbor,” says Mason.
The NRA’s presence at the United Nations dates back to 1996. Believing that international momentum for gun control was picking up steam and that the NRA was being left out of the debate, it obtained official status as a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations. The following year, it helped establish the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities. The new group, chartered in Brussels, is an umbrella organization of more than 30 firearm groups and manufacturers from around the world, and has become the primary voice of the pro-gun movement at international gatherings. Mason is now the World Forum’s coexecutive secretary (the other slot is reserved for a European).
Of course, adding gun rights advocates to the U.N. crowd—an internationalist mix of diplomats, activists, and academics—has led to some cringe-worthy instances of culture clash. At one U.N. conference meeting on small arms, a pro-gun speaker from the Single Action Shooting Society, which bills itself as being “the closest you’ll get to the Old West short of a time machine,” reminisced about his childhood joys of playing cowboys and Indians. The NRA argument that the wider possession of firearms could actually prevent genocide hasn’t gone over well, either. “The World Forum matters because it gives an international veneer to the NRA’s activities,” says Natalie Goldring, a Georgetown University expert in international security issues who advises gun-control groups. “I think [Mason] thrives on controversy. I believe he thoroughly enjoys the fact that his mere presence in the [U.N.] building is an annoyance to those of us who want to stop the killing.”
Naturally, Mason sees his role as being more than a thorn in the gun control movement’s side. He argues that the United Nations’ position on small arms is currently driven by the myth of a global gun problem. The real problem, he says, is crime (which is, incidentally, the same message the NRA broadcasts in the United States). To that end, the World Forum supports affixing serial numbers to firearms to help trace illicit sales. But if you’re not going to disarm criminals, Mason insists, you’re not proposing a real solution. The United Nations’ goal “is not real disarmament. [It] is, to a great extent, various countries going through an exercise of so-called disarmament that enables them to mollify their
liberal constituencies,” he says.
Mason’s lobbying might have been much less effective if he didn’t have an ally in the White House. At the first U.N. conference on small arms in 2001, the head of the U.S. delegation, John R. Bolton, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stunned the hall with a strident opening statement, declaring that the United States “will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures abrogating the constitutional right to bear arms.” What emerged from the conference was a diluted, legally nonbinding “program of action.” One dropped provision involved the sale of guns to “nonstate actors,” which in context might be more accurately called “rebel groups.” The greater loss in the view of gun control advocates was the elimination of wording that called upon governments to regulate civilian ownership. “The U.N. agreement was never going to be about banning civilian ownership,” says Rebecca Peters of IANSA. “It was going to be about regulating it.”
Nevertheless, the hollowed-out U.N. document was one of the biggest victories for the NRA’s international agenda. That is, until Brazil.
In the five years since the 2001 small-arms conference, the NRA has refined a message that experts say is working. Few countries have implemented the U.N.-recommended measures. A report released by IANSA last July concluded that the “glass is still 95 percent empty” for gun control advocates. The same was said in a progress report two years earlier. Given the lack of progress, Goldring says the NRA’s fears of “gun grabbers” are overblown—and the gun control movement is on the ropes. “This is like bird flu, right?” says Goldring. “The concern is that it will start somewhere else and end up here [in the United States]. And, by fighting international efforts, they’re actually fighting the domestic groups as well…. I wish the NRA were right. I wish we were going to see a groundswell of support. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
If you asked people in Bosnia, Botswana, or, for that matter, Brazil, what the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stands for, most of them would probably have no idea. But the unexpected defeat of Brazil’s proposed gun prohibition suggests that, when properly packaged, the “right to keep and bear arms” message strikes a chord with people of very different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures, even when that culture has historically been anti-gun. In fact, the Second Amendment may be a more readily exportable commodity than gun control advocates are willing to accept, especially in countries with fresh memories of dictatorship. When it is coupled with a public’s fear of crime—a pressing concern in most of the developing world—the message is tailored for mass consumption. “It’s a very simple argument, simply phrased,” says Mizne of Sou da Paz. “But to answer it, we needed a more complex argument.” So, in exchange for nuance, the gun control crowd loses out.
The international gun control movement doesn’t lose every round. In the last decade, in Australia, Britain, and Canada—all countries where the NRA was either advising gun groups or aiding them outright—strict gun control measures passed with strong popular support. Tight controls passed in South Africa, too, though with greater resistance. But, since the NRA has become serious about pushing its agenda at the United Nations, the momentum for gun control has stalled. The pro-gun lobby, whether the NRA or its locally inspired disciples, works to limit the conversation to crime and illicit trafficking. The gun-control lobby argues that you can’t address small-arms violence without restricting legal access to guns. Thus, the great logjam in international firearms talks. Gun control advocates insist they are not interested in circumscribing the rights of gun-owning Americans. “The U.S. is not actually much interest to us,” says Peters. “We just want to work in countries where we can actually make progress.”
But, when the gun control movement is most honest with itself, it must know that it will never make real progress until the United States becomes a target for its efforts. Around half the world’s guns are produced in the United States, and Americans possess, by far, the world’s largest private arsenal. For the gun control movement to achieve its real goal—restricting the global supply of firearms—the United States must be part of the equation.
So, if the NRA has such a seemingly insurmountable advantage, why does it bother promoting its agenda in the world’s distant corners? Because, it will tell you, it has a global market to protect. And, even if it isn’t a fair fight, doing battle with the United Nations and promoting fears of a global gun-grabbing conspiracy is a boon for fundraising and publicity back home. By that measure, it may not matter if the NRA wins the next time there is a public referendum on banning guns. It wins all the same.
David Morton is a freelance writer working in South America.