In the midst of the Parkland, Fla., shooting coverage, I learned that membership benefits of the National Rifle Association include travel discounts. I felt a twinge of jealousy and wondered, “what else don’t I know about the NRA?” As a distraction from reading about another round of thoughts and prayers, I decided to learn more about the NRA. I still don’t agree with its interpretation of the Second Amendment and find the messaging difficult to stomach, but it was time well spent. A few things struck me as particularly relevant as we say #NeverAgain … again.
First, the NRA is a membership organization. That is common knowledge, but I learned that they offer a lot to their members. The annual membership fee of $30 is lower than I expected. It comes with a thank you gift, a magazine subscription, a membership card and a sticker. Members can purchase NRA-branded merchandise like coolers, T-shirts and hats. There are member savings on gun-related accessories, travel discounts, a variety of insurance policies and even a wine club. There are educational opportunities such as firearm training and shooting competitions, and they even offer college scholarships.
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This is different from my experiences with progressive organizations, which tend to be open to everyone. My interactions are defined by giving time or money. I’m asked to volunteer my time making phone calls, knocking on doors, registering voters and fundraising. I’m asked to make donations on a weekly, if not daily, basis. In 15 years, I’ve received a thank you gift twice. I’m not asking for more – I volunteer my time and money because I believe in these causes. However, as an organizer, I will be more thoughtful about creating value and opportunity for my volunteers and supporters. Membership and membership benefits help create a sense of belonging and shared identity.
Second, the NRA has been around since 1871. Those of us impatient for immediate action and life-saving solutions would be smart to remember that it takes time to develop the organizational infrastructure necessary to support and engage a membership base that is 5 million strong. It takes time to fine-tune messaging, figure out how to mobilize for legislative action, and cultivate influence. We need to anchor our sense of urgency with patience and persistence and focus on the less-than-glamorous aspects of movement-building like organizing contacts and registering voters. It seems like everyone is planting all their hopes on a few high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That is irresponsible of those who have advocacy and organizing experience. We can admit failure as leaders and learn to be supporters and followers of a new generation. We shouldn’t just retweet, repost, and celebrate their successes as if that’s enough on our part. We have to help them build a sustainable movement and organization.
Finally, the NRA talks a lot about protecting a way of life, their way of life. They use words like “freedom” and “patriot” and images of the American flag are sprinkled liberally throughout their materials. The thing is, that’s my flag too. I was born and raised in the United States. I am just as passionate about preserving our freedoms and protecting our way of life. We cherish and value the same things – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that’s where conversations should start. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that “conservative” and “liberal” matter a lot less than “together.” According to poll after poll, there’s a lot of consensus on gun safety and gun control among gun owners and non-gun owners. If we are serious about #NeverAgain, we should listen more, label less, learn from each other about each other, and create change together.