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.)
Clearly, the NRA’s Republican generosity has had an impact: Congress has passed no meaningful gun-control legislation for years, not even following Columbine. Ashcroft, the top recipient of NRA money in his failed Senate bid in 2000 (he got a total of $374,137 from the NRA that year, according to the Violence Policy Center), turned government interpretation of the Second Amendment on its head this past May by stating that the Justice Department’s position henceforth is that the amendment grants an individual the right to guns, in contrast to the US Supreme Court’s 63-year-old interpretation that its purpose is to insure the arming of state militias.
What more could a right-wing, pro-gun group want? Answer: A lot. There’s ample growth opportunity on the center-right for an effective grassroots organization capable of delivering votes to Republican candidates, and there’s little dispute among knowledgeable people on both the left and the right that this is where the NRA is headed. “In places like the South, when you poll on the gun issue it’s not that people don’t like gun laws; it’s that they see the gun issue as a larger indicator of values and big government threatening those values,” said Luis Tolley, legislative director for the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. “I think the NRA knows that on their specific issue they don’t do very well, but as they paint things in broader strokes and try to make it a larger cultural thing, I think it’s an effective strategy for them.”
Marshall Wittmann, former legislative director at the Christian Coalition and now a political analyst with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, sees the NRA as filling a vacuum left by the decline of the religious right. “Institutionally, the religious right is just a skeleton of what it once was,” he said, “so the NRA has become the most significant grassroots and financial force within the Republican Party. The major political arm of the religious right was the Christian Coalition, and it has been in steep decline since Ralph Reed left it in the mid-’90s. The only organization that has come to take its place is the NRA.”
Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, agrees. “The NRA is a very important grassroots organization, one of the few that the Republicans actually have that are able to mobilize voters,” he said. “Ideologically, we’re compatible, so of course we’re going to be pursuing the same candidates and many of the same issues.”
While one might think that its efforts to appeal to a broader audience would prompt the NRA to moderate its provocative rhetoric, there’s no evidence that the organization has pulled in its claws. At this year’s annual members’ meeting in Reno, Nevada, a series of NRA speakers vilified gun-control groups, liberal media and liberal politicians. Characterizing these groups as traitors to a nation fighting a war against terrorism, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said, “Together, they form a sort of Taliban, an intolerant coalition of fanatics that shelter the antifreedom alliance so it can thrive and grow.” He said that the nation learned a lesson on September 11: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda should have been “taken out” long ago.
LaPierre also gave notice of the NRA’s apparent broader interest when he said that for the first time in the organization’s history, his annual report would “extend beyond the traditional scope of gun rights” to encompass concerns about personal freedoms that are shared by other groups on the right. “We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom,” he said. “It’s black and white, all or nothing. You’re with us or against us.”
Indeed, the organization is developing ties to the wider conservative world. In 2000 the NRA named two of the most influential rising conservative stars, Grover Norquist and David Keene, to its board of directors. Norquist is president of the antitax group Americans for Tax Reform, and Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union. The new web that connects the NRA, the Republican Party and the various conservative grassroots groups is now apparent. This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference–a major annual event designed in large part to motivate grassroots conservative activists to engage in greater political action–was chaired for the second year in a row by Keene. The CPAC Presidential Banquet featured appearances and comments by NRA executive vice president LaPierre, NRA board member and Republican Congressman Bob Barr and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Norquist’s influential weekly gathering of conservative activists in Washington is typically attended by representatives from the Bush White House and the NRA. To Norquist, who prides himself on being a “center-right coalition builder,” his election to the NRA board and his role as a link between the NRA, the White House and other conservative groups are natural developments. “If Bush made ten phone calls two years before he was running to sit down with leaders of the center-right coalition,” he said, “one of them was to me and one was to the NRA.” Norquist speaks of the NRA in the same way that the Republican National Committee’s Sheridan does: as a useful grassroots organization that can deliver conservative votes. He mocks Democrats and liberals for their attention to gun control because, he says, it is a losing issue that only mobilizes pro-gunners whenever they bring it up. “The left keeps coming back to gun control like a moth to flame and it gets burned every goddamn time,” he says. “Sixty-five percent of the American people are for ‘reasonable’ gun control. But in terms of intensity, only 4 percent of the American people care about guns–and they hate gun control.”
Shortly after Norquist was elected to the NRA board in 2000, the Million Mom March drew a crowd of as many as 750,000 people to the Mall in Washington on Mother’s Day, and it appeared that gun control would be a strong issue for Democrats in the 2000 elections. In fact, the outcome was a mixed bag, subject to conflicting interpretation. The NRA claims that Al Gore lost the election on the gun issue. Gun-control activists say that to the contrary, had Gore not backed off on the issue as his campaign progressed, he would have gotten more votes from suburban women who were inclined to vote for him based on that issue alone. They also point to the fact that seven of the nine House candidates who received the most NRA money lost, as did five of the seven top NRA recipients in the Senate.
Whatever the reality, there’s no question that the Mother’s Day promise of a massive new grassroots gun-control movement failed to materialize. (The march merged with another organization, which in turn has been absorbed by the Brady Center.) The conventional wisdom among the Democratic leadership has favored the NRA interpretation. (The public, however, still supports gun control over the NRA’s hands-off approach, according to polls.) “In Washington, it’s absolute religious faith now that being for gun control is dangerous and bad for Democrats,” said Mark Pertschuk, legislative director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a gun-control group.
But even if that were not the case, there are other reasons gun control is virtually absent in this year’s campaigns. Many of the tightest races are occurring in rural districts and heartland states, where support for gun ownership and the NRA is strongest. In addition, economic decline, the war on terrorism and the prospects of war with Iraq are overshadowing the public’s concerns about gun violence. As LaPierre told the New York Times on September 10, “There’s been a sea change on this issue since the 2000 election. Democrats are running away from gun control like the plague, and we are just not being attacked. If they’re not agreeing with us, they’re silent.”
The NRA has identified Missouri, Georgia, Minnesota and South Dakota as the pivotal states in which they will be focusing their efforts to win back the Senate for Republicans. Even though Democrats in those states and elsewhere aren’t talking about guns, the NRA is dredging up their “antigun” voting records and pointing to such nefarious campaign contributors as the National Education Association. The NEA, which has given money to Georgia Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, “supports gun lock mandates [and] mandatory storage laws that would hold lawful gun owners criminally responsible if their firearms are stolen and used in crime,” in the words of the NRA magazine, America’s 1st Freedom. Meanwhile, the NRA is telling its members not to fall for the charade of born-again Democratic pro-gunners. “Many of the politicians now donning hunter-orange and posing with awkwardly-held shotguns are actually just cleverly camouflaged gun-ban extremists,” the magazine warned. LaPierre hinted in his magazine column that the apparent Democratic movement away from the gun issue is a sinister plot to regain control of Congress by “lulling gun owners into staying home on Election Day.”
Gun-control activists respond to the criticism that their issue is a politically weak one in this election cycle by pointing to instances like the hit in the polls that Ehrlich suffered when he talked about examining the state’s gun laws. In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell–considered a villain by the NRA because of his efforts to sue the gun industry to recover public costs related to gun violence–crushed his Republican primary opponent Bob Casey Jr., who was heavily supported by the NRA. The NRA is now backing the Republican candidate, Attorney General Mike Fisher, but the latest polls have Rendell with a lead of as much as fifteen points. And in Georgia, NRA poster boy Barr was ousted in the Republican primary by John Linder, himself no gun-control advocate but not in the same league as Barr.
“When you get races that are statewide or districts that are not heavily conservative, I think [the NRA’s] name is an albatross around the neck of candidates they support because they’ve been so extremist and recalcitrant in blocking common-sense things like requiring background checks at gun shows,” said Khalid Pitts, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Pitts spent time in Michigan this summer during the Democratic primary contest between Lynn Rivers and John Dingell, both incumbents in a realigned district. The race was one of the few this year in which gun control surfaced as an issue–Rivers spoke out for stronger gun laws and criticized Dingell for his longtime coziness (despite his Democratic affiliation) with the NRA. In the end, Dingell won handily by eighteen points. But Pitts and others noticed that he scarcely mentioned guns, and when he did he tried to paint himself as a moderate, while the NRA was eerily quiet. “Their involvement was to send letters to their members asking Republicans to cross over and vote,” Pitts said. “The reason they didn’t spend heavily on ad buys for Dingell like they did for Casey in Pennsylvania was that they knew that it would backfire on them.” The NRA strategy worked: Rivers was badly hurt by a huge Republican crossover vote.
People join the NRA because they feel threatened by outside forces–big government, big media, the East Coast liberal elite–and they see the gun, both symbolically and real, as the answer. But its members are growing older–younger people are less apt to be gun buyers; and the rural areas that have been its power base are declining as the more gun-control-receptive suburbs are growing. In addition, the NRA’s move onto larger conservative turf could pose risks. “If you’re not strong on the gun issue, what’s your interest in the NRA?” asks Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control. In addition, he notes, “given its single-minded focus, as it’s currently constituted, the NRA doesn’t lend itself very well to coalition strategies with other conservative groups that are better positioned because they embrace a wider variety of issues and show more flexibility in their concerns.”
The NRA is a powerful force now. But in a nation where nearly 30,000 people die each year from gunshot, gun control is an issue that won’t go away. Even if things are quiet now, the debate will re-emerge–certainly no later than next year, when the 108th Congress must decide whether to reinstitute the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban when it sunsets in 2004. And as the DC sniper has demonstrated in halting Congressional movement on a gun-industry immunity bill, things can change fast.