In Second Amendment warfare, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) often dominates the headlines, most Americans not intimately involved in the battles waged for or against gun control are unaware of another organization in the fight: Gun Owners of America (GOA).
But the relatively unheard of, comparatively tiny gun rights club stands alongside the NRA in efforts to repeal gun control laws and push back against legislative and legal challenges for additional firearms restrictions.
GOA’s Early Years
Founded in 1975 by political author and California state Sen. H.L. Richardson, the GOA has roots in a state-level battle over a proposed gun ban.
Richardson was serving on the NRA’s Board of Directors when a movement took hold in his home state to ban all handguns. Then a seven-year veteran of the Golden State’s legislature, he formed Gun Owners of California to push back against the handgun ban proposal, which was ultimately defeated.
In the aftermath of his victory in California, Richardson formed the GOA to take up similar fights across the nation. He continued to serve as an NRA director for several years while playing a key role in the operations of the GOA. Still serving in the legislature, he also continued his role as a thorn in the side of gun control activists. It was during that same period that Richardson penned a law for the free ownership of handguns. Adopted by his fellow legislators, the law was the basis for the striking down of a San Francisco handgun ban nearly a quarter of a century later, in 2009.
A No-Compromise Approach
Richardson was affiliated with both the NRA and the GOA. However, one reason for the growth of his new organization was a growing satisfaction with the NRA. Seven years before the founding of the GOA, the NRA supported certain measures of the historic Gun Control Act of 1968, including new laws banning firearms ownership by convicted criminals and the mentally ill. That and similar decisions by the NRA prompted some gun owners who rejected the notion of compromising on gun rights issues to gravitate towards the GOA.
While conservative critics of the NRA launched a number of gun rights organizations, including the Second Amendment Foundation, the GOA quickly grew to become America’s second most influential gun lobbying group, a status it continues to maintain today.
In the 35 years since its foundation, the GOA has maintained its staunch opposition to any form of gun control, often taking a harder stand than the NRA. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., has called the GOA the “only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.”
The NRA endorses many members of the Democrats’ Congressional Blue Dog Caucus, moderate members of Congress who often break party ranks on fiscal matters and issues such as gun control. But the GOA has criticized Blue Dog Democrats for being “Pelosi Lap Dogs.” That is a reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cali., who often finds herself in the GOA’s crosshairs. In the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, the GOA asked of Blue Dog Democrats, “Can any member who votes to retain Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House really be considered a defender of the Second Amendment?”
In another high-profile break with the NRA, the GOA refused to endorse Arizona Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election campaign. The GOA gave McCain an F rating on his gun rights voting record and at one point during the campaign described that record as “abysmal, wretched and pathetic.” The GOA has since raised McCain’s rating to a C-, closer to the C+ given McCain by the NRA.
Support of Pro-Gun Politicians
Like the NRA, the GOA has a political action committee — the GOA Political Victory Fund — through which it contributes financially to pro-gun candidates.
In 2004, the last year of significant Congressional gains by the Republican Party — which receives the lion’s share of contributions from the GOA and other pro-gun organizations — the GOA spent nearly $1.4 million through the Political Victory Fund. Between 1998 and 2004, the group said it contributed nearly $18 million through the PAC. Contributions have declined somewhat since that time.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in U.S. politics, the GOA has spent more than $690,000 on gun rights lobbying in 2010 and nearly $6,000 more in political contributions. By comparison, the NRA has spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying in 2010 and more than $650,000 in contributions.
Joining Gun Owners of America
A membership to the GOA costs $20 per year. The group encourages additional contributions up to $100 and offers a life membership for $500.
Unlike some other pro gun groups, such as the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation, the GOA does not offer a magazine subscription with paid membership. GOA members receive a newsletter with updates on gun legislation at the federal, state and local levels. Members also routinely participate in surveys and polls to gauge gun owners’ stance on various issues.
The group currently boasts 300,000 members, making it the nation’s third-largest gun lobby behind the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation.