Former Olympic pistol-shooter Gabby Franco looks directly into the camera and says: “The government took our guns…the biggest mistake Venezuelans made was believing that this would never happen.”
The 35-year-old Venezuelan-American, who came to the U.S. when she was 21 years old, is part of the National Rifle Association’s newest national ad campaign called “Freedom’s Safest Place.”
In a dramatic minute, Franco warns Americans that her family and friends back in Venezuela have had their gun rights stripped away from them over the last few years – suggesting that as a result the country is suffering record violence under criminals who now outgun unarmed citizens.
“Today, they would do anything for the Second Amendment freedom that we enjoy as Americans,” she says while warning, “never ever take it for granted.”
What Franco didn’t say is that she is part of the NRA’s latest push to attract membership among Hispanics, the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country. Though the NRA will not publicly say it is trying to woo Hispanics, experts say the NRA views the minority group as a potent force to try and grow its aging membership.
“The NRA faces an existential problem,” said Dr. Robert Spitzer, author of the book The Politics of Gun Control and a member of the NRA who has written about the NRA, the Second Amendment and gun control laws. “Their base has been gradually shrinking – older white males are a smaller and declining population as a whole and younger people are less interested in guns. Gun ownership and use has actually been declining for the past 40 years.”
As the NRA’s core membership – mostly white and rural Americans – continues its demographic decline, the powerful organization’s long-term survival will depend on its ability to recruit new members from the Hispanic community. Polls suggest that is going to be an uphill effort.
A Pew Research Center Study found that an overwhelming majority of Hispanics, 75 percent, believe gun control is more important than gun rights. Gun control is also extremely popular among blacks, 72 percent of whom say control is more important than ownership. The divide is stark against whites who believe gun rights are more important than gun control. A recent Pew Research Center Analysts found that two in 10 Hispanics say they have a gun, rifle, or pistol in their home but whites are twice as likely (41 percent) to say they have a gun in their house.
The secretive organization would not disclose the percentage of its membership that is Hispanic. It claims to have 5 million dues-paying members.
“They’ve certainly made appeals to ethnic groups in the past,” Dr. Sptizer said, of past NRA campaigns that focused on African Americans and women. “In terms of the Hispanic and Latino community, we haven’t really seen much of a push. It seems like this would represent a concerted new effort to reach out to this community.”
For their part, the NRA refuses to divulge details about its marketing strategy and says Latinos are one part of its general efforts to appeal to everyone. While the NRA launched a Spanish-language website in 2006 – that no longer exists – the organization is exploring whether it will expand its Freedom’s Safest Place ad campaign to include Spanish-language television.
“Self-defense and the Second Amendment is not something that is targeted to one particular community or another,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulandum said to FNL. “The reality is when people need to defend themselves it’s regardless of their cultural background.”
While the NRA won’t say whether it is actively wooing Hispanics, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade group that represents hunters, target shooters, gun manufacturers, retailers and shooting ranges is more open about its efforts to appeal to Hispanic consumers.
Though lesser known than its politically powerful cousin, the NSSF – like the NRA – also spends millions lobbying for gun rights.
Underscoring the NSSF’s interest in targeting Hispanics, the group concentrated on emphasizing diversity outreach to its businesses and retailers during their annual industry summit in 2014.
Leaders said they were placing “unprecedented focus” on reaching out to Hispanics to recruit them in hunting and the shooting sports.
That same year, the organization rolled out a pilot program in the Miami area targeting Latinos and instituting focus groups that “helped shape a messaging and imagery campaign to introduce Latinos to target shooting,” with the goal of rolling out similar programs to other areas and states.
Following the summit, the NSSF began looking to attract more Latinos to its First Shots programs, which trained non-shooters in a supervised classroom environment. In 2015, NSSF held its first First Shots program in Spanish in Texas – programs which they intend to continue to expand.
Despite, polls that show Latinos are more likely to be in favor of gun control and not owning guns, the NSSF believes their own studies show that the Hispanic market has a strong interest in learning about firearms, owning them and participating in shooting sports.
According to the survey, 25 percent would like to own a firearm in the future – with the strongest desire coming from Hispanic women at 27 percent. The NSSF said more than half of the respondents (54 percent) would go to a range if they were invited by a friend or family member.
“The face of America is changing,” Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the NSSF, told FNL. “We have seen an increase in overall target shooting participation by 19 percent, from 2009 to 2012. Our customer base is going to be more diverse so if we can provide some consumer insight, we can help motivate the consumer as they are thinking about what they want to do with their entertainment dollars.”
Bazinet says the NSSF website will begin to roll out Spanish-language firearm safety videos in the coming months.
For the NRA and the NSSF Franco, a Latina woman and now a private firearms instructor, is the perfect messenger. Two years ago, the NRA reached out to Franco to begin doing online videos where she talks about the American Dream and the importance of the Second Amendment.
She says she does not get paid by the NRA but is an “NRA news commentator.” Her father first taught her to shoot when she was 11 years old. She became a member of Venezuela’s Olympic team in her teens, earning at least a dozen international titles over the course of five years. In 2002, she moved to the United States and became a citizen in 2010. Her family still lives in Venezuela.
She believes her pro-gun message in the NRA commercial is effective to Latinos, especially those who are foreign born and have left behind authoritarian regimes and violent countries in Latin America.
“It does resonate,” Franco said. “It is reminding the second generation of Latinos why their parents left – looking for safety, looking for a better future. We left, because we saw crime, we saw that we couldn’t protect ourselves, we cannot allow this to happen in our country.”
Franco and gun rights advocates point to the fact that there is a gun violence epidemic in Latin America despite strict firearm rules in some countries. The CCSP-JP, a Mexican NGO, ranked the Venezuelan capital of Caracas as the world's most violent city in 2015. All but eight of the 50 most violent cities in the world were in Latin America and the Caribbean. This despite the fact that, like other Latin American countries, the Venezuelan government has been restricting gun rights since 2002.
“I’ve had family members killed. I’ve had family members kidnapped. My brother has had a gun to his head,” Franco said. “Now, the only ones who have given away the guns are the civilians because they don’t want to land in jail. The criminals don’t care.”
Spitzer, however, doubts this kind of message will resonate as well with Latinos. He stressed violence in Latin America is a result of corrupt governments, not guns.
“This campaign is swimming upstream,” Spitzer, a political scientist, said of the NRA’s message to Latinos. “The problem isn’t that people don’t have guns, it’s that guns are being used by criminals to terrify the populations because governments are too weak to response to violence in their strategies.”
Franco, a Republican, joined the NRA after picking up a pamphlet at a shooting range in Miami. She is optimistic that the NRA is will only continue to improve their outreach to the Hispanic community.
“They are changing and just the fact they are opening to try new things,” she said, “I think that’s fantastic.”