By Sarah Ferris - 02/03/15 06:00 AM EST
On the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Larry Keane, watched the news in disbelief.
Down the halls at the gun industry group’s offices, he could hear his co-workers crying as the TV showed the school’s smashed windows and clusters of terrified children.
“There aren’t even words to describe the unbelievable coincidence that this occurred where we happened to be located,” Keane said in an interview with The Hill last week.
The shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — where the NSSF has been based for more than two decades — was among the deadliest in history, leaving 20 children and six educators dead in addition to the gunman and his mother.
For the firearms industry group in the center of the small New England town, it was a tragic irony that forced them into the epicenter of a nationwide gun debate. It also left the gun lobby with a tarnished reputation, accused of profiting from deadly weapons, that it is still trying to repair.
Until Dec. 14, 2012, the NSSF had faced little public scrutiny as it lobbied on behalf of more than 10,000 gun manufacturers, retailers and ranges. As a much smaller — and quieter — counterpart to the National Rifle Association, it wasn’t hard to avoid attention.
In the two years since the shooting, the NSSF has doubled down on its safety programs, including efforts to improve the country’s background check system.
“We’re not bad neighbors, we’re not the bad guys,” said Keane, who splits his time between his Newtown and his Washington, D.C., office — about a 10-minute walk from the Senate’s entrance.
The protests outside the NSSF started just days after the final funeral parade passed through town.
Word had spread quickly that the yellow office building at the corner traffic light was home to a lobbying group that aimed to make it easier for companies to buy and sell guns.
Hundreds of moms and dads from newly formed groups like Newtown Action Alliance brought their kids and picketed outside for hours. They wore “Sandy Hook” green and held up signs and photos of the slain children and teachers.
NSSF officials mostly kept their heads down.
The group released a statement expressing sympathy for the families of the victims, but initially stayed clear of issues like magazine limits, semi-automatic weapon bans and background checks, a sharp contrast to the NRC’s reaction.
“We were mindful of where we were located. We were mindful of the sensitivities,” Keane said. “We tried to be respectful and we limited what we said in the immediate aftermath.”
Meanwhile, on the national stage, the group’s presence was growing fast: After spending less than a half-million dollars in 2011, its spending surged to $2.5 million in 2013 and then $3 million last year as a sea of new regulations put lobbying in high demand.
Staff members at the NSSF, including Keane, believe much of the anger directed at their organization over the last two years is misguided.
Keane, the son of a New York City police officer, stressed that the group has been “a leader in promoting firearms safety” since its founding in the 1960s. He pointed to Project ChildSafe, through which the NSSF worked with 15,000 law enforcement agencies — including in Newtown — before the shooting.
Perhaps the NSSF’s most surprising safety effort — at least, to gun control advocates — is its campaign to improve background checks.
All gun dealers are required to use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to search for records that would make potential buyers ineligible to own a gun, such as those convicted of a crime. The system is notoriously unreliable, plagued by a lack of data and governed by a patchwork of state laws — problems that all sides of the gun debate have long tried to fix.
Still, Keane argues that his organization is the only one with “boots on the ground.”
“People will talk about it, most notably the Bloomberg-funded groups, but they don’t actually do anything,” he said. “We put our money where our mouth is.”
The FixNICS program has made big strides since the shooting: the NSSF claimed victories in about 12 of 15 states where it has paid lobbyists in the past year. Funding is also flowing at the federal level, with Congress setting aside $58 million in grants in 2015, its largest-ever pool of funding.
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t get any credit for it, but were going to keep doing it,” Keane said.
Po Murray, the co-founder of Newtown Action Alliance, said while she also supports strengthening background checks, she distrusts the NSSF because she believes its “primary goal is to sell more guns.”
“They’re the ones that rebranded the semi-automatic assault rifles,” she said. “NSSF is the gun lobby.”
She criticized the group for helping to block the Senate’s 2013 background check bill. An amendment to that bill, offered by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), would have closed the “gun show loophole” that allows dealers selling firearms at gun shows to skip background checks. The amendment and the bill failed. The NSSF said at the time it opposed the Manchin-Toomey measure because enforcing the gun show regulation would draw needed resources away from NSSF-supported efforts to strengthen existing background check laws, a stance Keane reiterated nearly to years later.
Keane reiterated that stance, saying the industry didn’t support Manchin-Toomey because it drained resources without trying to repair the already broken system.
Other than the regular protests outside the NSSF, Murray’s only interaction with the gun industry group came at a friend’s Christmas party in New Hampshire. Keane, who also owns a house in New Hampshire, happened to be at the same party.
Murray said she immediately introduced herself and “broke the party etiquette” by talking about the NSSF.
Keane remembers that their conversation was “cordial,” adding that it was the typical “small world” story he’d grown accustomed to while living in Newtown.