Protesters assemble at a gun control rally, December 17, 2012. (Flickr/Edward Kimmel)
Hysterical at the prospect that at least a few elected officials might stop treating its pronouncements as political gospel, the National Rifle Association announced Tuesday that it had attracted 250,000 new members in the month since the slaying of twenty children by a gun-toting killer in Newtown, Connecticut.
The NRA’s release of the new numbers was timed to “counter” President Obama’s Wednesday announcement of legislative proposals and executive orders developed by Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on mass violence.
Most of the media, having lavished coverage on the NRA’s vitriolic response to its meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, have in recent days been dutifully reporting a series of announcements and “leaks” by the group about its self-declared appeal—just as it will now heap attention on the NRA’s vitriolic response to the reforms advanced by the Biden-led task force.
But the other side of the story is at least as compelling as the latest declarations from what former Bush administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter has decried as “the NRA protection racket.”
Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school shocked the nation in December, support for the gun-safety movement—and presumably for the initiatives that Biden and his task force are announcing—has grown at an exponentially greater rate than support for the NRA.
The Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign, which has opened its membership rolls to citizens who want to work with local elected officials to promote gun safety, attracted 400,000 new members in late December and early January. And more than 900,000 Americans signed a “Demand a Plan” petition seeking specific details of what will be done to dial down gun violence.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has literally been overwhelmed by calls and e-mails offering support, and by the response to a rapidly expanding “We Are Better Than This” campaign featuring members of thirty-two families who have lost loved ones in deadly mass shootings.
The new Americans For Responsible Solutions PAC, launched last week by former Congressman Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, has, according to Forbes magazine, “gone viral,” attracting more than 35,000 “likes” on its Facebook page and—as political action committees are measured by money raised—showing signs that it will exceed its goal of raising $20 million to counter the NRA in the 2014 election cycle.
The new organization is blunt about its determination to go up against the lobbying group for gun manufacturers. “As gun owners and victims of gun violence, Gabby and Mark know preventing gun violence and protecting responsible gun ownership go hand-in-hand,” ARS says in its statements. “This country can put its divisive politics aside and come together to support commonsense measures to make us feel more secure in our communities. You can support the Second Amendment AND policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. 74 percent of NRA members agree—and so do Gabby and Mark.”
Beating the NRA on the campaign trail isn’t as hard as it used to be. The group’s political high-water mark came almost two decades ago, in the 1994 mid-term elections, when it was a significant player in the special-interest coalition that swept former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies to power. In 2012, however, a Sunlight Foundation study of spending by the National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund found that only 0.83% of the $10,536,106 it spent in the general election “had the desired result” of backing a winner or defeating a targeted contender.
Yet, the NRA continues to be treated by much of the media as something more than it ever was, and something far greater than it now is: a definitional political player. This is a “Wizard of Oz” circumstance, where the fantasy of power actually creates the power. If it really had the power, the man it poured its resources into defeating—Barack Obama—would not be the president of the United States. And the Democratic candidates the NRA spent most of its resources seeking to defeat would not have increased its majority in the US Senate and won 1.4 million more votes than were cast for Republicans in races for the US House.
Of course, the NRA has been and will continue to be a political presence in the United States. It is well integrated into the networks of the political right, having recently installed former American Conservative Union chief David Keene as its new president.
But the NRA is no longer the only significant player in gun-violence and gun-safety debates.
This reality poses a challenge for major media. We’re talking here about more than just fact-checking the notoriously truth-challenged pronouncements of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre—although Media Matters for America is right when it reminds us that “the media has a responsibility to evaluate the truthfulness of the claims made by the NRA and should not merely pass along statements made [by LaPierre] as fact.”
There is a more fundamental issue, especially for broadcast media outlets. If coverage of what is going to be a long and arduous gun debate is to be even minimally “fair and balanced,” it must feature more voices. And those voices must be accorded at least a reasonable measure of the attention that is accorded the NRA’s “pronouncements from on high.”
Too much coverage since the Newtown shootings in December has been deferential to the NRA—as if the group was somehow the victim. Major media outlets have literally scheduled programming around the increasingly temperamental demands of the group, while accepting “no questions” press conferences as serious new events. So it was that Americans were treated to breathless “wall-to-wall” reporting on a press conference statement from the NRA’s LaPierre that veered into such bizarre territory international media outlets reportedly felt compelled to warn viewers that what they were watching was not a spoof. Indeed, as a columnist for Britain’s conservative Spectator magazine wrote: “Reading the transcript I thought at first that it must be a parody written by gun-control activists determined to discredit the National Rifle Association. Turns out there’s no need to attempt that, not when the NRA is prepared to do the job itself.”
The NRA must be covered, and it must be covered fairly. But honest coverage of the gun debate can and should place the NRA in perspective. And that means the NRA’s pronouncements should be balanced with coverage of the gun-safety groups that appear to be far more in touch with popular sentiment in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.
The NRA’s opponents are not the only ones drowned out by coverage of its ramblings. Read Bryce Covert’s reminder about the disparate racial impact of antiviolence policy.