Taking on NRA’s political power

The political clout of the NRA is renowned, but it now faces its biggest battle, write Julie Bykowicz and Greg Giroux

THE National Rifle Association in the US spent at least $12m (€9m) — and bestowed its endorsement on Republican nominee Mitt Romney — in its unsuccessful bid to oust Barack Obama.

The pro-gun rights organisation invested $300,000 in each of the Senate races in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and lost them all. Its lone winner in a competitive Senate contest: Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.

And now the Virginia-based NRA is facing its biggest legislative challenge in more than a decade: The revival of a gun control movement after 26 people were killed during last Friday’s shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20-year-old shooter also killed his mother and himself.

“Every American has second amendment rights, the ability to hunt is part of our culture,” Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, an NRA ally, told a Richmond television station. “But, you know, enough is enough. I think most of us realise that there are ways to get to rational gun control.”

In a statement released last night, the NRA said: “National Rifle Association of America is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters — and we were shocked, saddened, and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer, and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

The association is planning to hold a news conference in Washington DC on Friday.

How the NRA manages the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre could have ramifications for 2014, when its ability to sway elections may again be tested.

Some Democratic senators up for re-election represent states with substantial rural territory where gun ownership is common and an ingrained part of the culture. Democrats owe their Senate majority partly to the success of some senators in states supportive of gun-owners’ rights.

A lower voter turnout in a non-presidential election year may give the NRA a better opportunity to knock off opponents in those races. Its influence is “real, it’s not just perceived”, according to Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator who lost a comeback bid to an NRA-backed opponent in November.

“They have a real influence because their focus is very clear and they organise around a single issue and have substantial grassroots support for their positions.

“I object to what they say and don’t think that they’re altogether honest as they approach their audience, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective.”

The NRA’s history of political prowess dates to at least 1994. In the elections immediately following passage of a ban on individual ownership of assault-style weapons, gun policy was an issue “that could hurt Democrats in Republican-leaning districts”, said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

After the 2000 presidential election, the NRA calculated that 87% of the candidates it endorsed won, including George W Bush. Since then, no significant gun-control bill has advanced on Capitol Hill.

“One of the things that helps them maintain their clout on Capitol Hill is their constant reminding of lawmakers that they have big money that they can put into elections at any time,” said Bill Allison, director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Until recently, gun opponents have barely counter-punched. “There’s really no comparison in money and influence,” said Allison. “If you look at the groups aiming for gun control, there’s very little out there, and in Washington, what counts is getting people elected.”

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns together spent $216,000 on federal lobbying in the first nine months of this year and the 2012 elections, less than 1% of the NRA’s spending on those activities.

Some officials and gun-control advocates are beginning to question why the NRA has held so much sway on Capitol Hill. A Washington Post/ABC poll released yesterday shows that 54% of Americans favour stricter gun laws.

Robert Yuille, from Portland, Oregon, whose wife, Cindy Ann, 54, was one of two people killed in a Dec 11 shooting at the Clackamas town centre, said policymakers should defy the NRA and pass legislation.

“I think that we shouldn’t be backing people that want to carry assault rifles around,” said Yuille. “If they want to carry a military gun, they should be in the military then.”

The NRA reported $219m in revenue last year. The money was spent on public education, local and state activities, and court battles, tax documents show. Affiliated foundations and civil-rights and political funds reported another $32m in revenue.

Over $100m in its 2011 revenue came from member dues, while $59m came from the gun industry and other donors. A toaster that burns the NRA’s logo onto bread fetched $650 at a Nov 2011 auction.

The NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, was closed yesterday, according to protesters outside its Capitol Hill doors.

About 200 people invited by Credo, a political group that spent $3m trying to defeat Tea Party Republicans this year, showed up. Becky Bond, Credo’s political director, said the Newtown shootings represent a tipping point.

“It had been gun control groups versus the NRA, but that changed Friday,” she said. “It’s now the American people versus the NRA.”


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