With five weeks to go until Election Day, the National Rifle Association was on top of the world. Democrats everywhere were simply keeping their mouths shut about gun control, and a few had actually embraced the NRA. Membership had risen to around 4.3 million, an all-time high. The organization had been anointed by Fortune as the most powerful lobbying force in the land. And it could count on the friendship of people in very high places, like President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
But sooner or later in the United States, some nut with a gun decides that he wants to go down in history. And when that happens, as it did in early October, when a sniper started randomly shooting people in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the role of the NRA in a nation awash in guns and gun violence was once again drawn into question. The NRA found itself in a defensive position, criticized for its blockage of technology that might have aided investigators trying to identify the shooter. For the NRA-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, Representative Robert Ehrlich Jr., the shootings may have delivered a serious blow to his campaign against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Only a week before the shootings, Ehrlich had said that Maryland’s gun-control laws, some of the toughest in the nation, should be reviewed. In a state where residents vigorously support strong gun laws, the statement was a faux pas made potentially all the worse by the emergence of the sniper.
On Capitol Hill, a bill written by Republican Representative Cliff Stearns to provide the gun industry with special immunity from litigation–and co-sponsored by an eye-popping 231 House members–has been postponed indefinitely by House Republican leaders. Joe Sudbay, public policy director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group, speculated that the delay is intended to help both Ehrlich–by not forcing him to vote on a gun issue at a time of so much public attention to the subject–and Maryland Republican incumbent Congresswoman Constance Morella, who is in a tough re-election fight and who could be hurt by voter awareness that a vote for her is a vote for the NRA-influenced GOP leadership, even though she herself is a rare pro-gun control Republican. Sudbay also thinks Republicans are concerned about the potential impact beyond Maryland. “I think their willingness to postpone the vote, which has been a top priority for the NRA, is an indication that Republicans fear backlash in some of these tight races,” he said. “It’s interesting. This was going to be their gift to the NRA this year.”
While the sniper elevated gun control as an issue in Maryland, its possible impact on races elsewhere remains uncertain. In contrast to the 2000 general election, gun control has simply not been much of an issue anywhere in this year’s campaigns. Following the perceived wisdom that gun control is a losing issue for them, most Democrats have not brought it up. Neither have Republicans, many of whom benefit enormously from NRA largesse. Indeed, the NRA and the Republican Party have never been cozier, in large and obvious part because the NRA gives so lavishly to its candidates. Not that long ago, the NRA at least gave the appearance of bipartisanship, but that has changed. In 1990 the NRA gave 61 percent of its Congressional campaign contributions to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but by the 2000 general election that figure had jumped to 92 percent. As of October 1 the figure for the midterm election was also 92 percent. Furthermore, the NRA now simply hands soft money to the Republican Party via contributions to party committees. According to the CRP, the NRA gave $1.5 million in soft money to the Republican Party in 2000, and as of October 1 of this year, the figure was $648,523. (By contrast, in the 1998 midterm elections, the NRA gave a total of $350,000 in soft money to Republicans.)