The NRA Gets Tough!

Even politics gets into the Crime and Prison Privatization Game!

March 17, 1997

The NRA strikes back

By Chris is Bryson

An important and largely overlooked force driving the prison boom in the United States is the National Rifle Association. With a membership of some 3 million, an estimated war chest of $140 million, and paid lobbyists in ail 50 states, the NRA has thrown its weight behind so-called "get tough on crime" measures and prison-building initiatives.

In an attempt to change its image from pro-gun to anticrime, the NRA formed CrimeStrike in 1991 as divisions of its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. The NRA shifted gears in response to growing popular disgust with the groups opposition to the Brady bill and its support for the sale of assault rifles and Teflon-coated "cop-killer" bullets. Those campaigns had also drawn attacks from law-enforcement groups that had once supported the gun lobby.

"It's frightening how effective CrimeStrike has been," says Steven Donziger, editor of The Real War on Crime. By orchestrating well-funded efforts to lengthen prison sentences and build new prisons, Donziger says, CrimeStrike has effectively served as a front group for the many constituencies that profit from an expanded crime-control and prison industry. CrimeStrike logged its first victory in November 1993 when it backed Washington state's "Three Strikes and You're Out" initiative, the nation's first. The NRA provided $50,000 in crucial last minute financing that enabled the local sponsor, Washington Citizens for justice, to place the initiative on the ballot.

'We would have failed without CrimeStrike," says Dave LaCourse, the group's director. That success was rapidly followed by similar victories in California and Virginia, where NRA lobbyists again provided essential money and manpower to "three strikes" campaigns. In Virginia and Mississippi, according to CrimeStrike state legislative affairs director Susan Misiora, the NRA was "instrumental" in passing truth-in-sentencing measured which lengthened average prison sentences.

CrimeStrike has also led the charge to accelerate prison-building programs around the country. In Texas in 1993 and Mississippi in 1994, the NRA lobbied for billion-dollar bond initiatives to fund prison construction. The NRA-backed public ad campaign in Texas led to the construction of an additional 76,000 prison beds in two years. The state has imported prisoners from as far away as Hawaii to fill the cells and has hired 12,000 new prison staff to guard the growing inmate population.

At the federal level, the NRA lobbied hard for the 1994 crime bill, which, among other things, increased the federal funds available to states for building new prisons from $3 billion to $10 billion. CrimeStrike executive director Elizabeth Swazey says the frequency with which legislators quoted from NRA literature during congressional debate on the bill illustrates how effective CrimeStrike was.

Swazey calls juvenile just ice "one of the most important areas of criminal-justice reform." CrimeStrike is currently examining juvenile-sentencing laws in all 50 states and lobbying for new measures to have young people sentenced as adults. The NRA's embrace of "get tough on crime" rhetoric is paying off. Despite the widespread criticism of the NRA in the early '9Os, donations to the organization's legislative fund rose to $18 million in 1993, about double the amount given in 1988, according to Donziger. 'There is a direct link," he says. "They recognized a business opportunity, and they chose to exploit it."

( Editor: The keyword is "exploit" )

Chris Bryson is a freelance writer based in New York City