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Financial Ties Bind NRA, Gun Industry

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Leaders of the National Rifle Association plan to break their weeklong silence Friday and make their first public comments on the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

They say they will be speaking for the NRA's 4 million members. But they will also be speaking for the gun industry, which has close financial ties to the association.

The NRA and the gun industry are reeling after last week's massacre. The primary weapon used — an AR-15-style rifle — is one of the most popular guns in America.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association of the firearms industry, says those who have AR-15s are among the most passionate gun owners.

Just recently, the foundation put out a video touting the AR-15 as "probably one of the most customizable rifles there is today." A gunsmith showed how to add a muzzle flash hider, various sights and other accessories — things the gun is designed to accept easily.

And that captures the strength — and possibly the weakness — of the industry and the NRA.

"What we're seeing is that the industry is trying to think of one new thing to sell to gun owners," says Josh Sugarmann, head of the Violence Policy Center, a group seeking tighter gun laws.

Studies show the American gun culture faces long-term problems: too many older white guys; dwindling land for hunting, as suburbs encroach; and kids who pick up video games rather than BB guns.

Sugarmann says industry leaders see the problem. "They've recognized that the traditional market — traditional hunting rifles and shotguns — is saturated. So there's an ever-shrinking market that's buying more and more lethal weapons," he says.

Weapons like the AR-15 — a civilian version of the standard military rifle. The industry-preferred term is "modern sporting rifle."

A survey by the Shooting Sports Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of AR-15 owners own more than one.

The NRA and the foundation are trying to expand the market of gun enthusiasts — as with a foundation promo for a program called First Shots. "If you've never fired a gun before, here's your chance. Your local shooting range wants to give you a shot," the promo says. "You're invited to a free seminar developed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation."

But those demographic woes are for the long term.

Nima Samadi, an industry analyst at IBISWorld, has a short-term picture. He says that compared with the military and law enforcement segments of the gun industry, "the consumer segment has seen a pretty aggressive growth, particularly over the past five years."

One reason: fear of crime. The crime rate has been steadily declining, but it still helps explain the strength in handgun sales.

The other reason — much more powerful — is the fear that if you don't buy that AR-15 now, the Obama administration won't let you buy it later.

"By far, that's the largest driver for the growth," Samadi says.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, appeared on Glenn Beck's TV station earlier this month, before Sandy Hook.

"I mean, the strongest defense of the Second Amendment is the marketplace," he said. "And there's no clearer picture about how average American citizens feel about their Second Amendment rights than lines at gun stores all over the country right now because they fear the Obama administration's second term is coming after their freedom."

All of this has the effect of bringing the quarter-billion-dollar-a-year NRA and the $12 billion-a-year gun industry closer together.

Sturm Ruger, known especially for its handguns, had a yearlong promotion in which it gave the NRA a dollar for each gun sold. The total exceeded $1.2 million.

Beretta USA gave $1 million to support Second Amendment lawsuits.

And the CEO of Cabela's, the big-box chain that sells sports and outdoors gear, gave the NRA $1 million cash. He was inducted into the association's Golden Ring of Freedom for top donors.

It's much too early to tell how the Connecticut massacre will affect things — either financially or legislatively. But right now, gun sales are spiking. Once again, it's the fear of new gun control laws that's moving weapons off the shelves.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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