Whenever the National Rifle Association is accused of extremism, it trots out the claim that it represents a large chunk of America's gun owners. Last week, it said it has 4.2 million members and counting. Though the group doesn't publish its membership rolls and didn't respond to questions about its size, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it is making itself out to be bigger than it truly is.

Estimates of the size of the its membership have varied widely over the past 20 years. At different times in 2008, for example, it pegged its membership at 3 million and 4.3 million—a difference of more than 40 percent. A 2012 document for prospective sponsors of the NRA's annual meeting (PDF), found by Bloomberg News, said the group had 4 million members, of which 2 million were the "most active and interested." 

NRA membership estimates

During the early 1990s, the NRA's membership peaked at around 3.7 million before plunging to 2.6 million in 1998, according to newspaper stories at the time. The shrinkage coincided with criticism of the group's extremist rhetoric around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. If the NRA is to be believed, it quickly began replacing those lost members. But did it? After the late '90s, reports of its size start to spread out like buckshot from a sawed-off bird gun.

In March 2001, the Denver Post pegged the NRA's membership at 2 million. A few months later, an NRA spokesman put the number at 4.5 million; the Columbus Dispatch and Colorado Springs Gazette put it at 3 million. What was going on here? One possible explanation comes from Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the 2007 book, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. After George W. Bush was elected, Feldman recently told Bloomberg, "there was no perceived national threat to gun ownership. The NRA's membership dropped to under two-and-a-half million, although they never admitted it."

Writing in 2000, when the NRA claimed to have 3.6 million members, journalist Osha Gray Davidson speculated on some of the group's strategies for fluffing itself up:

Two years ago, David Gross, then an NRA board member, confided to me that a substantial number of the group's 1 million Life Members are, well, dead. "There just isn't that much incentive to go find out when someone passes away," Gross explained. "Not when the cost of maintaining (a dead member) is minimal and when they add to your membership list."

Who else is included in that figure of 3.6 million? I may be—although I haven't been a member for years. Not long ago, I received an NRA form letter stating that in recognition of my previous commitment to the Second Amendment, the gun group had granted me an honorary membership. The mailing even included an NRA membership card embossed with my name.

It's all part of the NRA's campaign of smoke and mirrors to make itself appear more formidable in Washington, where appearance often trumps reality. The NRA leadership must offer a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of journalistic sloth and credulity every time a reporter repeats that figure of 3.6 million members and the words "record high."

NRA Taurus ad
An ad for a Taurus pistol in the NRA's American Rifleman
magazine offers free membership in the group.

The NRA has boosted its membership numbers in other ways. A 2008 issue of the NRA Recruiter, a newsletter aimed at the association's evangelists, proudly noted that weapons makers and outfitters such as Browning, Beretta, Taurus, Tactical Rifles, and Wilson Combat were offering free NRA memberships to anyone purchasing their products. The newsletter also talked up the benefits of "Join NRA, Get in Free" promotions at gun shows. "This is, by far, the most effective way to substantially increase your numbers," it said. "…[A]ll you have to do is 'sell the sizzle.' People are always looking for a bargain."

In 2008, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, came across more evidence of the NRA's fuzzy math. He pointed to a piece of junk mail that the NRA's treasurer had sent to members peddling a specialized insurance plan aimed at gun owners. The pitch stated that "with about 3 million NRA Members 'on our side of the table,' we negotiated a bargain price." Sugarmann has an intriguing theory why this number may be more credible than the one that the NRA routinely gives the press: The underwriter for the insurance plan was in California, where making "untrue, deceptive, or misleading" statements in insurance materials is outlawed.

Last week, the NRA claimed that it had added 100,000 new members in the weeks following he Sandy Hook massacre. "Our goal is to get to 5 million before this debate is over," a representative of the group told Politico. If all of the NRA's numbers are to be believed, it will hit its target by this fall.

UPDATE:  A source writes in with another strong indication that the NRA's true size is closer to 3 million. The NRA gives members a free subscription to one of four magazines: American Rifleman, American Hunter, America's 1st Freedom, or NRA InSights. The first three magazines are audited by the Alliance for Audited Media, which as of July gave them a combined paid circulation (including newsstand sales) of 3.1 million. NRA InSights is an online-only magazine for kids, with a circulation of 25,000. Though some NRA members may opt out of a free magazine, it's likely that others pay to subscribe to more than one of them. Add in the fact that non-NRA members can pick up the magazines on the newsstand, and the 3.1 million figure is almost certainly an upper-bound for the NRA's true size.

The Obama administration's gun task force is set to deliver its recommendations next week. But if gun control legislation gets to Congress, even a moderate bill could run up against hard opposition from today's Republican leadership, who are worried about catering to their supporters on the far right. DC bureau chief David Corn and The Grio's Joy Reid talk about what will happen when the gun control debate hits Congress on MSNBC's Hardball.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Glenn Beck has a dream. On Thursday, the former Fox News host, gold bug, survival-seed guru, movie star, and bestselling author unveiled plans for a new planned community—inspired by the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged—to be built at an undisclosed location somewhere in the United States*.

No, really:

Glenn believes that he can bring the heart and the spirit of Walt's early Disneyland ideas into reality. Independence, USA wouldn't be about rides and merchandise, but would be about community and freedom. The Marketplace would be a place where craftmen and artisan could open and run real small businesses and stores. The owners and tradesmen could hold apprenticeships and teach young people the skills and entrepreneurial spirit that has been lost in today’s entitlement state.

There would also be an Media Center, where Glenn's production company would film television, movies, documentaries, and more. Glenn hoped to include scripted television that would challenge viewers without resorting to a loss of human decency. He also said it would be a place where aspiring journalists would learn how to be great reporters.

Across the lake, there would be a church modelled after The Alamo which would act as a multi-denominational mission center. The town will also have a working ranch where visitors can learn how to farm and work the land.

Independence would also be home to a Research and Development center where people would come to learn, innovate, educate, and create. There would be a theme park for people to recharge and have fun with their families.

People would also have the option to live in Independence, with a residential area where people of different incomes could all come together and be neighbors.

Beck estimates the city-theme-park will cost about $2 billion to build, or roughly .002 trillion-dollar platinum coins, or .178 Fox News blue whales.

Correction: This post originally stated that the city would be in Texas. Beck hasn't specified which state he'll build Independence in.

The devastating Haiti earthquake that killed 217,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless happened three years ago Saturday. For a year or so, the drama captured plenty of headlines and human interest; our own human rights reporter, Mac McClelland, traveled to Port-au-Prince to document the hazards that befell Haitians and the morass that doomed much of the nation's inbound aid. This year's anniversary hasn't generated much media attention, but that's not because everything in the island nation is fixed. Almost 360,000 people remain in tent camps, and the country's infrastructure is still in shambles. A lot of that is due to the failures of the international community.

Only half of the $13.34 billion in international aid allocated for Haiti reconstruction has been disbursed. And of that, only a small portion has gone to "reconstruction," strictly defined. Instead, the New York Times reported in December, "much of the so-called recovery aid was devoted to costly current programs, like highway building and HIV prevention, and to new projects far outside the disaster zone."

On Thursday, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) stopped by the Cobb County chamber of commerce to explain his views on gun control. But it wasn't just any gun store—Gingrey, the Marietta Daily Journal reported, "took the time to praise Adventure Outdoors owner Jay Wallace as the gold standard for running a responsible gun retail business."

The problem: Adventure Outdoors is anything but. In 2006, New York City sued the firm for negligence in preventing its guns from falling into the hands of criminals. Between 1996 and 2000 alone, 256 guns sold at Adventure Outdoors were connected to crimes—21 in New York City alone. "ATF has established that a very small percentage of retail gun dealers—about 1%—are responsible for approximately 57% of the illegally-possessed guns nationwide," the city explained in its lawsuit. "The Defendants are among this small group of gun dealers who arm illegal gun possessors. As such, the Defendants cause, contribute to and maintain a public nuisance within the City of New York."

The city specifically singled out Adventure Outdoors for selling guns to what are known as "straw purchasers." Based in part on the work of two investigators the city hired, the complaint charged that "upon information and belief, Defendants intentionally or negligently sell handguns to prohibited persons through 'strawman' purchases, in which an individual legally able to buy a handgun purchases the gun from a licensed gun dealer, intending to transfer it immediately to a prohibited person."

Here's the lawsuit:



A default judgment was issued against Adventure Outdoors in 2008, and in 2011, a federal court ordered that an independent outside expert be appointed to oversee the company's sales practices and ensure it didn't sell guns to straw purchasers (a federal appeals court later struck a portion of the "special master" mandate, but still subjected the company to an outside monitor*).

Gingrey's comments came at the same chamber of commerce breakfast in which he defended his former colleague Todd Akin's suggestion that women who have been raped have special mechanism to prevent a pregnancy, citing his own experience as an OBGYN. Gingrey is chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus.

h/t James Carter IV

*I've clarified the language here.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

The filmmakers responsible for Zero Dark Thirty, the journalistic-but-non-journalistic thriller about the CIA's 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, say they are proud of the debate triggered by the film's controversial depiction of torture as crucial to discovering the Al Qaeda leader. But at the film's Washington premiere, they decided not to participate in that discussion.

"Mark and I are truly awed by the remarkable national conversation that this movie has spurred. As filmmakers, nothing is more flattering, humbling, and quite frankly, somewhat intimidating," director Kathryn Bigelow told the audience at the Newseum Tuesday night. Yet she didn't stick around for any of that "remarkable conversation," absconding before the film started and missing the post-screening panel discussion. During that panel, screenwriter Mark Boal boasted that the heated argument over the film and torture are "a compliment to the work that Kathryn did—that she created a film that's so complex, and so dense, and so multifaceted."

But Boal, too, fielded no queries from a well-informed audience of journalists, government officials, policy advocates. At the event, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, now the film industry's top lobbyist, called the film "courageous." Yet after Boal answered a few chummy queries from ABC News' Martha Raddatz, burly men in suits blocked the entrance to the stage and later escorted the courageous screenwriter to a black SUV waiting outside.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Lennon pulls the lanyard to fire a D-30 howitzer during a test at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 6, 2013. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kleynia R. McKnight.

Picking up on our deep investigation into mass shootings, Fox News this week struggled to grok why arming "the good guys" to stop massacres is actually just a big NRA fantasySenior editor Mark Follman sat down with the network to explain our investigative findings. (Shocker: Fox's report conveniently ignores key details of shootings it cites from Colorado and Nevada; recently we exposed the same deceptive tactic by others using these same cases.) Watch:

Near the outset of his rant on Piers Morgan Tonight on Monday, conspiracy peddler Alex Jones warned that the Second Amendment is all that stands between democracy and dictatorship. "Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chávez took the guns, and I'm here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!" he screamed.

Two days later, the Drudge Report published this visual echo of Jones' claim:

Meanwhile, Google searches for "Hitler gun control" are spiking.

Of course, attempts to equate gun control with fascism are bogus. But the "Hitler took the guns" argument has long had a prominent and fairly effective role in America's gun control debate despite its obvious reductionism.

Its origins can be traced back to at least the early 1980s, when opponents of a Chicago proposal to ban handguns invoked it in the largely Jewish suburb of Skokie by "reminding village residents that the Nazis disarmed the Jews as a preliminary to sending them to the gas chambers," the Chicago Tribune reported. In 1989, a new pro-gun group called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership began arguing that the 1968 federal gun control bill once favored by the NRA's old guard "was lifted, almost in its entirety, from Nazi legislation." (That false claim is still being repeated.)

In 1994, JPFO founder Aaron Zelman implored the NRA's board to seize on the alleged Nazi connection:

Some of you may even have figured out that unless the NRA changes its strategy, the law abiding firearm owner in America will go the way of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe: extermination…The choice is yours; you can turn your back on a failed strategy—one of compromise with evil-doers—and attack the concept of "gun control" by exposing the Nazi roots of "gun-control" in America. Or, you can persist in a failed strategy, and accept your own extinction.

Whether or not the NRA was influenced by his advice, that same year its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, published Guns, Crime, and Freedom, in which he claimed, "In Germany, firearm registration helped lead to the holocaust," leaving citizens "defenseless against tyranny and the wanton slaughter of a whole segment of its population." The following year, President George H.W. Bush famously resigned from the NRA after LaPierre attacked federal law enforcement officials as "jack-booted government thugs" who wore "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms." More recently, Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer who has represented the NRAargued (PDF) that "if the Nazi experience teaches anything, it teaches that totalitarian governments will attempt to disarm their subjects so as to extinguish any ability to resist crimes against humanity."

So did Hitler and the Nazis really take away Germans' guns, making the Holocaust unavoidable? This argument is superficially true at best, as University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explained in a 2004 paper (PDF) on Nazi Germany's impact on the American culture wars. As World War I drew to a close, the new Weimar Republic government banned nearly all private gun ownership to comply with the Treaty of Versailles and mandated that all guns and ammunition "be surrendered immediately." The law was loosened in 1928, and gun permits were granted to citizens "of undoubted reliability" (in the law's words) but not "persons who are itinerant like Gypsies." In 1938, under Nazi rule, gun laws became significantly more relaxed. Rifle and shotgun possession were deregulated, and gun access for hunters, Nazi Party members, and government officials was expanded. The legal age to own a gun was lowered. Jews, however, were prohibited from owning firearms and other dangerous weapons.

Next Tuesday, Joe Biden will be presenting his recommendations on gun violence to Obama. Can Democrats really sell gun control legislation to Republicans getting their arms twisted by the NRA? With MSNBC's Martin Bashir, David Corn discusses how the President can build a political coalition for gun control.

Read Mother Jones' special report on gun laws and the rise of mass shootings.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.