But in fact, the sort of vast, secret database the NRA often warns of already exists, despite having been assembled largely without the knowledge or consent of gun owners. It is housed in the Virginia offices of the NRA itself. The country’s largest privately held database of current, former, and prospective gun owners is one of the powerful lobby’s secret weapons, expanding its influence well beyond its estimated 3 million members and bolstering its political supremacy.
That database has been built through years of acquiring gun permit registration lists from state and county offices, gathering names of new owners from the thousands of gun-safety classes taught by NRA-certified instructors and by buying lists of attendees of gun shows, subscribers to gun magazines and more, BuzzFeed has learned.
The result: a Big Data powerhouse that deploys the same high-tech tactics all year round that the vaunted Obama campaign used to win two presidential elections.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam declined to discuss the group’s name-gathering methods or what it does with its vast pool of data about millions of non-member gun owners. Asked what becomes of the class rosters for safety classes when instructors turn them in, he replied: “That’s not any of your business.”
Others in the business of big political data, however, say the NRA is using similar tools to those employed by the campaigns of its nemesis, President Barack Obama.
“There are certainly some parallels,” said Laura Quinn, CEO of Catalist, a data analysis firm used by Obama For America. “The NRA is not only able to understand people who their members are but also people who are not their members. The more data they have, the more it allows them test different strategies and different messages on different people.”
“Part of the way they have gotten to a place where they are able to do what they do is through data,” Quinn said. “There is some irony.”
The vast size of the NRA’s database and its sophisticated methods of analyzing the public mood go a long way to explaining the organization’s enduring influence. Even in an age when opinion polls show gun-control measures gaining in general popularity and when wealthy benefactors like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are spending millions to counter the NRA’s lobbying and advertising budgets, the NRA has built-in advantages.
The NRA won’t say how many names and what other personal information is in its database, but former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman estimates they keep tabs on “tens of millions of people.”
“There’s nothing that prevents them from mailing those people,” said Feldman, who split with the NRA in the mid-1990s and is now leads the Independent Firearm Owners Association, which brands itself as a less extreme gun-rights group. “The more you know about people, the more targeted the message you can communicate with them, the more the message will resonate with them.”
Some data-collection efforts are commonplace in politics these days, such as buying information from data brokers on magazine subscriptions and the like.
But several observers said the NRA’s methods reflect a sophistication and ingenuity that is largely unrivaled outside of major national presidential campaigns. While the organization took great umbrage in December when a newspaper published the names and addresses of gun owners in two New York counties, the group for years as been gathering similar information via the same public records as a matter of course.
In Virginia, for instance, a North Carolina-based firm called Preferred Communications filed an inquiry with the Virginia State Police in July 2009 asking “on behalf of the National Rifle Association” as to whether the names of concealed-carry permit holders could be purchased. The e-mail was obtained by BuzzFeed by Freedom of Information Act request.