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This Is How the NRA Ends A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived

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06/05/2013 11:05 PM

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This Is How the NRA Ends A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived
Lest you think they've quit working on this little "project"...

[link to www.newrepublic.com]

"On April 17, the bill to expand background checks on gun buyers failed in the Senate, and the fatalistic shrugs in Washington were so numerous they were nearly audible. The legislation had been a modest bipartisan compromise, supported by 90 percent of the public and lobbied for hard by the president. A group backed by Michael Bloomberg had spent $12 million on ads pressuring senators to vote “yes.” When the bill fell short—by just five votes—it seemed to confirm a Beltway article of faith: There’s no point messing with the National Rifle Association (NRA). And that, many assumed, was the last we’d be hearing about gun reform.

But then something unexpected happened. Some of the senators who’d voted “no” faced furious voters back home. Even before Erica Lafferty, the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung, confronted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte at a particularly tense town hall, Ayotte’s disapproval rating in the state had jumped from 35 to 46 percent—half the respondents said her “no” vote made them less likely to support her.1 In Pennsylvania, which has the second-highest concentration of NRA members in the country, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Pat Toomey, saw his approval reach a record high. One of the country’s best-known gun-rights advocates, Robert Levy, said the NRA’s “stonewalling of the background-check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively.”2

In the Senate, the backlash had an effect. Some Republicans who had opposed the bill, such as Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, signaled they might be open to changing their minds. Majority Leader Harry Reid, once a dependable NRA ally, spoke about taking the rare step of bringing the bill back for another vote. Senator Joe Manchin, the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, is still actively courting support from his colleagues. “It’s not going away,” he told me.

Why did these developments take so many elected officials and pundits by surprise? As New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has pointed out, political science research shows that politicians consistently overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. But in this case, there was something more debilitating at work. The political class often lets old assumptions blind it to shifting realities.3 And the absolute power of the NRA is one of the oldest and least-tested assumptions in Washington.

The NRA, of course, has real clout. Like many other groups, it lobbies in Washington and state capitals, buys ads and deploys activists during elections, and maintains a ratings system that grades elected officials and candidates on their support for its goals. What sets the NRA apart is its relentless invocation of the Second Amendment, the single-mindedness of its supporters, and the inchoate nature of its hold on politicians. Its approval has come to signify not merely support for gun ownership, but American authenticity. For many in Congress, it’s “a cultural thing,” says one veteran Senate staffer. “You have to pass a cultural test for [constituents] to listen to you on the other stuff.”

And yet for some time now, the NRA’s power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact. Gun ownership is declining—from half of households in the 1970s to a third today. A slew of senators and governors have won campaigns in red or purple states despite NRA F ratings, including Tim Kaine (Virginia), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bill Nelson (Florida), who has campaigned on gun control but has won majorities even in deeply conservative Panhandle counties. Senator Chris Murphy, a rookie Connecticut Democrat who has taken a lead on the issue since the Newtown massacre, points out that, of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost. “The NRA is just all mythology,” he says. “The NRA does not win elections anymore.”

The reason for the gap between perception and reality is that, for many years, the NRA has had no real opposition. This has given the debate a strange quality: For gun-control advocates, the recent challenge has been less about persuading politicians on policy grounds and more about trying to convince them that the conventional wisdom about gun politics is wrong.

And then came Newtown. We are so resigned to seeing mass shootings come and go without any attempt to fix gun laws, but after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, something really did change. At long last and against all expectations, a viable movement for gun regulation is emerging. It is a development that not only bodes ill for the gun lobby and its Republican patrons, but will also complicate matters for elements of the Democratic Party who have been content to accede to the status quo. The narrow defeat of the background-check bill, it turns out, was not the end of hopes for gun reform, but the beginning.

The de facto headquarters for post-Newtown gun-control activism is New York City Hall, where the effort overlaps relatively seamlessly with the business of running a metropolis of eight million people. Bloomberg and his lieutenants were disappointed by the background-check vote, but not discouraged. After all, they now knew which senators to target in 2014. “The mayor has a long view,” says Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s political point person on the issue. “He is well aware that the NRA had the field to themselves for decades, and you don’t overcome those advantages overnight.”

The modern gun-control movement emerged in the early ’70s in reaction to the urban crime wave and the assassinations of 1968; it was led by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence) and the National Council to Control Handguns (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence).4 From the outset, its weaknesses were multiple and self-reinforcing. There were disagreements over whether to pursue incremental reforms or more ambitious proposals like handgun registration. And the movement has always been woefully outmatched financially. Gun-rights groups, funded by gun manufacturers, have given more than $30 million to federal candidates since 1989, compared with just under $2 million by their opponents.5

Gun control’s high point came in the early ’90s, when Congress passed the Brady law requiring background checks at gun dealerships and a ban on assault weapons. But in the 1994 midterms, Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, and Bill Clinton declared that it was the gun issue, more than any other, that was to blame. This was a self-serving explanation—Clinton’s first two years had seen the meltdown of health care reform and a string of scandals. But it was persuasive to a party panicked about the loss of Southern whites and Reagan Democrats. After 1994, Democrats committed themselves to a big-tent philosophy, and one of the largest spaces in the tent was reserved for those who sided with the gun lobby.

The last major push for regulations came after the Columbine massacre in 1999.6 Northeastern Democrats unsuccessfully tried to close the “gun-show loophole”—the exemption from background checks for non-licensed vendors.7 The next year, Al Gore’s loss of West Virginia and Tennessee was attributed to his reluctant talk of gun control in the primaries (never mind that those states were undergoing a long-term shift toward Republicans).8 After that, Democrats virtually went silent on the issue—thereby contributing as much to the NRA’s legend as conservatives ever did. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel proudly recruited pro-gun-rights Democrats for House races; three years later, as President Obama’s chief of staff, he infamously sent word that Attorney General Eric Holder needed to “shut the fuck up” after Holder proposed reinstating the ban on assault weapons, which had been allowed to lapse in 2004.9

But instead of increasing the pressure on politicians, gun-control advocates believed they could prevail through reason alone. While the NRA issued members voting instructions, their adversaries produced well-researched reports on gun violence. “We’ve always been too polite, by appealing to politicians to do the right thing, ... appealing to their conscience and hoping they’d come around even when the evidence suggested they wouldn’t,” says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “We went too far into the realm of educating the public and ceded the field of politics to the NRA. That was disastrous for us.”

All along, though, the gun lobby’s vulnerabilities were there for a serious opponent to exploit. Long before Wayne LaPierre’s rambling press conference after Newtown, the NRA had barreled well out of the mainstream—take LaPierre’s 1995 characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” It has become increasingly easy to find gun owners openly critical of the organization’s extreme politics. And demographic trends have concentrated its most ardent members in ever-narrower regional pockets.

That serious opponent has finally emerged. In 2006, Bloomberg formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns with 14 of his counterparts. One of the group’s first moves was to dispatch undercover investigators to Virginia gun shops—the source of many guns on the streets of northern cities—where they recorded footage showing how easy it was to make illegal purchases.10 In 2010, Bloomberg hired Wolfson, a hard-bitten veteran of three Hillary Clinton campaigns. Listening to the mayor’s team discuss gun control is very different from talking to longtime advocates—the conversations are an odd mash-up of the ruthlessness of campaign hacks and a moral crusade. For an administration that has made its share of ethical compromises—disregarding term limits, pulverizing opponents with the mayor’s personal fortune—gun control has become the ultimate validation.

What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA. There is plenty of latent public support for gun control, his logic goes, but politicians only see a risk in voting for it. He wants to reverse that calculation.

To that end, Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.

Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. “He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,” says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks.11 And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor...."

Last Edited by milehighmike on 06/05/2013 11:06 PM
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