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The registry the NRA warned against

Associated Press

A few months ago, conservative senators felt the need to kill a popular, bipartisan proposal on firearm background checks, and relied primarily on a single talking point: the proposal might lead to a firearm database. The very idea of some kind of national gun registry was so offensive to the right that the legislation had to die at the hands of a Republican filibuster.

It didn't matter that the bipartisan bill had no such database. It didn't matter that the bipartisan bill explicitly made the creation of such a registry a felony. All that mattered was that conservatives had a lie they liked, and which they used to great effect.

Four months later, Steve Friess reports that a massive, secret database of gun owners exists after all. But it wasn't built by the Justice Department or the Department of Homeland Security; it was compiled without gun owners' consent by the National Rifle Association.

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.

The compilation of these kinds of lists is not uncommon. Entities ranging from political parties to media companies to marketing experts want to target -- and sometimes micro-target -- American voters/consumers and find great value in private, detailed databases.

But we've been told that guns are different, and that a sophisticated registry of gun owners represents some kind of threat to American norms and freedoms.

Indeed, we were told that by the NRA, which has created a sophisticated registry of gun owners.

The BuzzFeed piece added:

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." [...]

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 has been gathering similar information via the same public records as a matter of course.

Former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman added, "It's probably partially true that people don't know the information is being collected, but even if they don't know it, they probably won't care because the NRA is not part of the government."

And I suppose that's the real trump card here. The right doesn't want the FBI to know which Americans have firearms, but if the NRA secretly compiles such a registry, no problem.

As for why the NRA needs such a database, I imagine it's simply a matter of marketing -- if the far-right organization feels the need to get its political message to a specific audience, it needs to know where to find that audience.

So if you're a gun owner who was somewhat surprised by targeting mailings that ended up in your inbox or robocalls that ended up on your answering machine, stop being surprised -- the NRA knows more than you might expect.