Does NRA really have 4.5 million members?

“It’s an honor to be here today on behalf of more than 4.5 million moms and dads and sons and daughters, in every state across our nation, who make up the National Rifle Association of America. Those 4.5 million active members are joined by tens of millions of NRA supporters.”

— National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre, testifying before Congress, Jan. 30, 2013

“Due to the importance of the fundamental speech and associational rights of the National Rifle Association’s four million members, and considering the blatant attack on those rights that S. 3369 represents, we strongly oppose the DISCLOSE Act and will consider votes on this legislation in future candidate evaluations.”

— Letter signed by Chris Cox, executive director of NRA-ILA, dated July 16, 2012

A number of people have wondered about the NRA’s claim that it has more than 4.5 million members. As can be seen above, just in the space of six months, the NRA’s estimate of the size of its membership jumped by 500,000, an increase of more than 12 percent.

Shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Fox News quoted an anonymous source as saying the gun-rights association had gained an average of 8,000 new members a day since the tragedy. But Politico quoted the NRA as saying that it had gained 100,000 new members in 18 days – which is an average of 5,500 a day.

Even if such numbers could be sustained over a period of time, that would mean about 80,000 to 130,000 new members in December – and 275,000 to 400,000 by early February. In either case, that falls short of a 500,000 gain.

Mother Jones magazine in January documented how the NRA’s estimate of its membership rolls has varied greatly in the past 20 years, between 3 million and 4.3 million. In an update, the magazine also suggested an alternative way of discovering the actual membership – counting the number of subscribers to the NRA’s magazines, which are provided free as part of the membership fee. (In fact, that’s the only way to get the magazines, since they are not sold on newsstands.)

The Alliance for Audited Media, which audits the circulation of magazines and newspapers, on Thursday released new magazine circulation figures – reported by the publishers – for the six-month period that ended Dec. 31, 2012. For the first time, digital subscriptions were also included. Let’s see what the results show.

With a new membership, the NRA offers the choice of three six-times-a-year magazines: American Rifleman, American Hunter or America’s First Freedom. (For children under the age of 15, there is also a digital publication, NRA Insights, but that has a circulation of just 25,000.)

But the numbers show that there has actually been a decline in subscribers for two of the magazines in the past year, with an increase in a third, for a slight overall decline in circulation.

American Rifleman: 1,731,416 for the six months that ended Dec. 12, 2012; 1,697,350 for the six months that ended Dec. 12, 2012

American Hunter: 877,029 (2012) 932,076 (2011)

First Freedom: 502,724 (2012) 526,725 (2011)

Total: 3,111,169 (2012) 3,156,151 (2011)

The publisher’s statements said 100 percent of the subscribers get the magazine as a result of their membership in the NRA. (The reports also indicate that a majority of members sign up only a year at a time.)

More broadly, the reports show that there was a spike in NRA magazine circulation after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, with circulation climbing from 2.8 million in 2008 to a high of 3.5 million in 2010. But then it started dropping, for a total loss of about 400,000, in the past two years.

Earlier in the week, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that more than 600,000 members did not take a magazine and that more than 200,000 received a digital subscription. So, we were surprised when the AAM numbers were released and the organization showed the three magazines had reported zero digital subscriptions.

To put that in perspective, if Arulanandam’s figure of 200,000 was prorated by the relative size of the magazines, then two of the NRA magazines would be in the top 25 digital magazines. American Rifleman, with 111,000, would be in seventh place. American Hunter, with 56,000, would be 25th. One would think the NRA would like those bragging rights and thus provide the figures to the circulation auditors.

Arulanandam said he did not know why the 200,000 in digital subscriptions were not provided to AAM.

We were also surprised that 15 percent of the NRA members would pass up a chance to get a glossy, free magazine.

The AARP, for instance, also provides magazines as part of its membership, but spokesman Josh Rosenblum says only a relatively small number declined to receive the AARP Magazine and AARP Bulletin. The magazines, each with a circulation of about 22.5 million copies, are the two most widely circulated magazines in the United States. The AARP spokesman said there was gap between its claimed number of members and its subscriber base because only one copy of each publication is sent per household. Rosenblum said many couples are both members and there are parents who live with adult children who are also members.

By contrast, the range of NRA magazines means that three members living in the same household could get three different magazines – and a child could get his or her own magazine as well.

Arulanandam noted that year-end 2012 figures do not necessarily reflect the surge in membership reported by the NRA. “When you are looking at, for example, the December magazine number, that mailing list is actually based on membership at the end of October, the magazine mailed November 15 or so,” he said. “We also have a lot of ‘bill me’ members who we don’t count until they pay.”

On the face of it, the NRA’s membership claim appears at least a tad exaggerated. Perhaps magazine subscriptions are only a rough guide, but even adding in Arulanandam’s numbers for digital subscriptions and refused subscriptions, the NRA had just under 4 million members near the end of 2012. Could the organization really have gained more than 500,000 since the Sandy Hook tragedy?

Of course, even 3.1 million members is a fairly large number – though it remains a relatively small percentage of the roughly 70 million Americans who say they own a firearm.

At this point, we are inclined to conclude that the NRA is overestimating the size of its membership when it claims more than 4.5 million members. Based on the available information, it does not appear credible for the number of members to have increased by 500,000 people in just six months. It actually appears possible that the membership rolls are below 4 million.

Indeed, in his congressional testimony, LaPierre referred to 4.5 million “active” members. Bloomberg News last year obtained a “sponsorship prospectus” for possible sponsors of the NRA’s annual meeting that, in a section on “preshow email blasts,” referred to 2 million members as the “most active and interested.”

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