WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association and the firearms industry are locked and loaded in a mutually beneficial financial relationship that funnels millions into the NRA's coffers, yielding legislative triumphs on Capitol Hill that boost gun sales.
The NRA's "Ring of Freedom" corporate donors list on its contributions website (www.nragive.com) reads like a Who's Who of gun, ammunition and ammunition magazine manufacturers, shooting-accessory providers and retailers.
Among them: Sturm, Ruger & Co., of the Southport section of Fairfield; Smith & Wesson, of Springfield, Mass.; and Beretta USA, a subsidiary of the Italian arms manufacturer.
The website shows that since 2005, corporations have given between $19.8 million and $52.6 million -- the vast majority of that from the firearms industry. Ruger said in a news release in April that it had donated $1.2 million to the NRA in the past 12 months.
An updated corporate donor list appeared on a plaque at the NRA's annual meeting in St. Louis last April. Captured in a photo obtained by the Violence Policy Center, an NRA opponent on gun control, the list includes Colt's Manufacturing Co., of West Hartford, and The Freedom Group Inc., whose Bushmaster plant in Ilion, N.Y., makes the brand of semi-automatic rifle used in the Newtown school shooting on Dec. 14.
Dollar totals for corporate donations on the updated list range between $22.2 million and $63.1 million.
"This program is geared toward your company's corporate interests," the NRA says in an online solicitation to corporate donors titled "The Future of Freedom" and signed by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
Dues still represent the lion's share of the NRA's income. In its 2010 tax return, available online, the NRA reported total revenue of $227.8 million, with $100.5 million coming from membership dues and $71.1 million from a catchall category, "Contributions, Gifts, Grants and Other Similar Amounts."
The NRA is hardly alone among membership organizations that seek out alliances with corporations whose interests parallel their own.
But in the wake of rising gun sales and mass killings such as those in Newtown and Aurora, Colo., last July, gun control advocates and others are becoming more vocal in questioning the NRA's motives: Has the 4 million-member group shed its traditional identity as defender of Second Amendment rights and promoter of safe firearms use and instruction in favor of a new one as gun-industry political front?
"The bottom line is the NRA is becoming a subsidiary of the gun industry," said Josh Sugarmann, Violence Policy Center executive director and principal author of last year's "Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA."
"The NRA is in bed with the industry for love and money," he said.
Indeed, the NRA's chief lobbyist in 1996, Tanya Metaksa, told the Wall Street Journal: "The gun industry should send me a basket of fruit -- our efforts have created a new market."
NRA Public Affairs Director Andrew Arulanandam did not respond to an email request for comment. But NRA defenders say that links between the NRA and firearms companies are the norm for advocacy organizations and industry players.
"Gun manufacturers are proud of their product," said David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute in Denver and an NRA member. "They believe they make good product which in the right hands can be wholesome for sporting purposes or life saving in the hands of police. So of course they will give money to organizations that support ownership of firearms by law-abiding persons."
He compared the NRA-industry relationship to book publishers promoting literacy or opposing censorship.
Organizations such as the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife benefit from contributions by companies such as Patagonia, retailers of outdoor apparel and gear. And AARP, which represents the interests of millions of senior citizens, has a lucrative licensing agreement with United Healthcare for Medigap health insurance.
But Sugarmann insisted comparisons to AARP and other organizations are irrelevant because "it's certain their corporate sponsorships are not killing 30,000 Americans a year" -- the number of gun-related deaths in recent years, whether by homicide, suicide or accident.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's main trade group based in Newtown, has also been active in promoting gun-rights issues. But it only opened a Washington office in recent months.
The group named a Capitol Hill veteran, Patrick Rothwell, in August as its government relations director.
In an interview last summer, NSSF vice president and general counsel called the NRA "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
So it is hardly a surprise that the NRA has led the charge on Capitol Hill on gun rights versus gun control, yielding a string of mostly victories that coincides with a spike in gun sales.
In the last five years alone, gun and ammunition sales have grown at a rate of 5.7 percent annually, according to a research report by IbisWorld.
Though the NRA lost its battle to block California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's 1994 assault weapons ban, it was instrumental in seeing that Congress let it expire in 2004.
Other NRA victories that have helped the industry include:
The 2003 Tiahrt amendment, named after former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas. It hampered the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in releasing information on gun traces, making it more difficult for advocacy groups to detect gun-trafficking patterns and link purchases of guns used in crimes to particular gun dealers.
Legislation in 2005 that immunized the gun industry from product liability lawsuits for guns used in homicides and other crimes.
The McClure-Volkmer Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 loosened restrictions on licensed firearms dealers and unlicensed individuals selling weapons at gun shows, and lowered barriers to interstate sales of guns, as well as ammunition through the mail.
Anecdotally, firearms dealers nationwide have reported a run on weapons by customers fearing new gun control measures in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. Among the most popular items: The Bushmaster .223 AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the one used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown shooting before he took his own life.
Gun dealers reported a similar sales spike after President Barack Obama won re-election, an event that LaPierre earlier this year warned would spell the end of "all of what we know is good and right about America."
Kopel said NRA and gun industry fears of gun control are, in fact, justified.
"When someone is trying to destroy you, you have to improve your defensive capability, or you lose," he said.