By Bill Boyarsky
Despite the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter, politicians approaching proposals for stronger gun regulation remain stricken with caution and fear of the National Rifle Association and its allies.
Wary of the NRA and its deep-pocket gun and ammunition-manufacturing supporters, gun control advocates are offering only mild proposals. Yet, despite the fear the organization generates, the NRA’s reputation as a political juggernaut may be overrated. It lost big campaigns in the last election even though it poured millions of dollars into them.
The most notable survivor of an NRA attack was President Barack Obama. The organization, determined to deny him a second term, spent $8.9 million campaigning against the president while spending $3 million for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, according to the Center For Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website.
Other major NRA failures include spending $753,000 in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and $511,000 against Democrat Tim Kaine, who won in Virginia. The NRA blew $588,000 on Republican Richard Mourdock, beaten in Indiana.
In a study of NRA contributions to candidates in several elections, Paul Waldman, contributing editor of American Prospect, concluded that the NRA has made its electoral reputation by backing sure-fire conservative winners.
“The bulk of NRA endorsements go to incumbent Republicans with almost no chance of losing,” he wrote on the Think Progress website. He said his research contradicts “a conventional wisdom propagated by Democrats and Republicans alike, which says that any discussion of the possibility of restricting gun sales in any way will lead only to electoral catastrophe for Democrats, so formidable is the NRA’s power.”
Previous mass murders have not inspired Congress to do much about the lack of regulation of guns. But the killing of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., was so horrible—and the daily coverage of the funerals so sad—that NRA allies are considering changing their positions.
“I’ve been a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner told the Washington Post. “I’ve got an A rating from the NRA. But the status quo isn’t acceptable. I’ve got three daughters. They asked me on Friday evening, ‘Dad, what are you gonna do about this?’ There’s got to be a way to put reasonable restrictions, particularly as we look at assault weapons, as we look at these fast clips of ammunition.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a gun supporter from Nevada, said he is willing to talk about the need for legislation, as are Sens. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.
Still, the legislative response has not been as strong as the occasion demands.
Obama said he will support Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s measure to ban assault weapons. Adam Lanza, the Newtown killer, used an assault rifle.
Feinstein was the author of the 1994 ban on assault weapons. She was in San Francisco City Hall the day Dan White shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a murder that elevated Feinstein, then chair of the Board of Supervisors, to mayor.
Her measure, which she will introduce when Congress reconvenes next month, would ban the sale, transfer or importation of assault weapons as well as magazines holding more than 10 bullets. But it would apply to purchases made after the bill becomes law and, she said, it would exempt more than 900 specific weapons. It wouldn’t apply to weapons or magazines already in circulation.
I know it will take more than a single law to strengthen regulations of guns. The NRA now says it is “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” But over the years, the organization has constructed a web of pro-gun state laws throughout the nation. It has done this by working hand-in-hand with the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, which is a network of conservative state legislators and corporate interests such as the Koch brothers. “Model” legislation written by ALEC has become law in several states on subjects ranging from guns to schools to Michigan’s new right-to-work law. Wiping out this web of state gun laws would be all but impossible, given the conservative Republican control of so many statehouses.
Nor will it be easy for even the Feinstein bill, with its 900 exemptions, to pass the House, dominated by conservative Republicans, or the Senate, where, as the National Journal’s Charlie Cook pointed out, six Democratic incumbents are up for re-election in two years in states that Romney carried by 14 points or more. Despite its promise to make “meaningful contributions” to the gun control debate, I imagine the NRA will make even more meaningful contributions to defeat any of the six who don’t follow the organization’s line. Despite NRA defeats this year, lawmakers will no doubt hesitate to defy the gun lobby.
Obama can make a difference. It was good that he endorsed Feinstein’s bill, but he did it through his press secretary. He should go for something stronger. As the New York Times reported Sunday, Obama’s Justice Department, with the 2012 election looming, put aside a proposal for strengthened background checks to prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals or the mentally ill.
The president has made moving speeches about the tragedy. Now it is time for him to put his oratorical power, and the skill of his political organization, behind a strengthened Feinstein bill. I know that will not cure the evil. But its passage would show the NRA that it can no longer terrorize American political life.