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FRONTLINE: NRA Under Fire

Airs Tuesday, March 24, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, March 26 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Participants holding up signs at the

Credit: Courtesy of REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Above: Participants holding up signs at the "March for Our Lives" event in Washington, U.S., March 24, 2018

⁠—FRONTLINE Investigates the State of the NRA as the 2020 Election Approaches⁠—

For years, the National Rifle Association wielded its political power to dominate America’s conversation about gun rights and gun control — outlasting and overpowering the calls for change that followed mass shooting after mass shooting, from Columbine to Newtown to Charleston.

But as the 2020 election approaches, the once-unrivaled organization is facing both internal strife and a rising external threat: a movement led by student survivors of the Parkland mass shooting, whose gun-control advocacy has kept the issue in the headlines and motivated a groundswell of politicians willing to take on the NRA.

In "NRA Under Fire," a documentary premiering Tuesday, March 24, FRONTLINE investigates the status of America’s gun debate — and why the organization that has dominated it for so long is now under attack on all sides.

FRONTLINE "NRA Under Fire" - Preview

Once an unrivaled political power, the NRA is facing challenges from all sides. FRONTLINE investigates the organization's history and evolution, how it aligned with President Donald Trump and his base, and why it is under attack ahead of the 2020 election.

“For about two decades, Democrats were running scared of the NRA,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times tells FRONTLINE. “And I think Parkland changed that.”

"NRA Under Fire" explains how — with accounts from Parkland survivors themselves. “We didn’t want it to end here,” Ryan Dietsch, who lost 14 of his classmates in the massacre, tells FRONTLINE of his ensuing activism against the NRA. “We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just forgotten about. We wanted to make sure the story was still being told.”

The documentary builds on FRONTLINE’s 2015 investigation of the NRA’s political history and influence, "Gunned Down." Drawing on interviews with leading voices on both sides of the gun regulation debate, the documentary traces the NRA’s evolution from a group of gun enthusiasts and sportsmen with minimal political focus, to a powerful lobbying force opposing any perceived infringement of the constitutional right to bear arms.

RELATED: How Loaded is the Gun Lobby?

“The base of the National Rifle Association believes so strongly it’s more a religion,” former NRA Executive Vice President Warren Cassidy tells FRONTLINE.

The documentary shows how, far from being weakened by earlier mass shootings like Columbine, the NRA swelled its ranks in their wake — rallying members around the fear that that their guns would be taken away.

“Fear is a much greater motivator in American politics than anything else, the fear of losing rights that you perceive you have,” former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman tells FRONTLINE. “When that fear level is high, that’s when the groups that represent the issue do well.”

But as the film explores, the movement that arose out of the Parkland shooting may be changing the equation: “The NRA has never had to deal with this kind of generational problem before,” gun control advocate Matt Bennett tells FRONTLINE. “They'd never gone up against a bunch of incredibly smart, talented and organized young people.”

And now, as NRA Under Fire recounts, the group is also threatened from within. Last year, leaked internal documents revealed lavish spending and sparked allegations of financial misconduct by the NRA’s longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre.

The Evolution of the NRA's Top Gun

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wasn't always a gun enthusiast. In fact, when LaPierre first joined the NRA in 1978, he was more comfortable on K Street than in a duck blind. “The safest place you could be with Wayne and a gun back then was in a different state, because he really did not know anything about guns,” former NRA spokesman John Aquilino tells FRONTLINE. “Politics, yes; guns, no.”

“There were a lot of people around the NRA looking to be rich, and the hypocrisy of it all is that the membership who gives $25 dollars doesn’t — they don’t know where their money is going,” former NRA fundraiser Aaron Davis tells FRONTLINE in his first on-camera interview.

Leading an investigation of the NRA’s finances is New York Attorney General Letitia James — one of a wave of pro-gun control candidates elected in the 2018 midterms, following the Parkland students’ organizing.

But with the 2020 election on the horizon, LaPierre and the NRA are vowing to fight on. And having supported Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to the tune of $30 million, the group is now throwing its support behind his re-election — and mobilizing its base.

“The threat that is staring us in the face right now, with this election is greater than any threat we’ve faced in our lives,” LaPierre has said.

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