April 25, 2013
By: Cassie M. Chew
Exuding a sense of impenetrable power, the headquarters of the National Rifle Association makes a big footprint along Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia. Its mirrored glass exterior, resembling the shape of an eagle flexing its wings, seems to embody the NRA's bullet-proof lobbying that has stalled any effort to expand federal regulations on gun ownership.
Last week the NRA showed some of its might and muscle when it helped to defeat a bipartisan proposal to require background checks on firearms sales at gun shows and over the Internet.
The deal failed over concerns among single-issue voters that the bill could lead to a federal registry of gun owners.
"[The] NRA has a demonstrated track record of throwing a lot of money in some cases, and potentially being decisive. It also has 4 million members, who are very dedicated, single-issue voters, who the NRA is very good at turning out," John Gramlich, a CQ Roll Call reporter who's been covering the issue, told the NewsHour.
"It was essentially the slippery slope argument and the NRA really pounced on that argument and amplified it and used every opportunity to say that this will lead to a registry,"
Since the December deaths of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., public polling indicates 90 percent of Americans and almost 80 percent of NRA's 4 million members support expanded gun checks. Yet some lawmakers didn't want to risk the potential political backlash of supporting a gun control bill.
"The NRA has rating systems that they use to score lawmakers. Every elected member of Congress is very aware of what their NRA rating is. Some of them care -- many of them care, some of them do not. Usually the ones who do not are from safe Democratic-leaning districts," Gramlich said.
The Sunlight Foundation's Lee Drutman says some lawmakers may have ignored public polling out of concern for what the NRA might do during their next campaign for office.
"Some people might look at Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat from North Dakota who just won a close election, freshman senator -- not up until 2018. The NRA dumped a fair amount of money into her state. They gave $60,000 in independent advertisements in favor of her challenger, Rick Berg. He also got about $12,000 in PAC contributions," Drutman said.
"[S]he barely won. It was a very close election and North Dakota's a small state; if she loses just a handful of single-issue gun voters, who she knows will be riled up by the NRA, because that's what the NRA is very good at doing ... she will have an even tougher time."
How has the NRA -- an organization that donates money to the Boy Scouts and the Girls Scouts -- evolved from its founding in 1871 as an education and training organization into a political force on Capitol Hill and beyond?
"The NRA for a hundred years never spent money on politics. We didn't endorse candidates, we didn't have a lobbyist. We didn't have a legislative arm. That was formed when the cultural wars began," NRA president David Keene told the NewsHour in a recent interview with Judy Woodruff.
"Our legislative arm and our desire to go into this, to the advocacy business, was really at the behest of a number of Democratic congressmen lead by John Dingell of Michigan, who said at that time, you can train all the hunters you want, you can issue all the instructions on safety and gun handling, and run all the competitions, and gun collector shows that you want, but if you don't step up to the plate and defend these rights, none of that's going to matter. And since then, we've done just that."
NRA's focus on lobbying intensified under the leadership of Sandy Froman, who prior to her 2005 election as NRA president, worked for several years to help the organization refocus its efforts supporting members of Congress who shared that view. And the NRA didn't stop there.
"No matter what any elected body says, judges decide what our constitution and Second Amendment mean. So the life or death of firearm freedom comes down to their interpretation these 27 words: a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," Froman told members at the 2005 annual NRA meeting. She congratulated her organization on its campaign to re-elect George W. Bush and a political campaign that "increased the number of pro-Second Amendment House members and pro-second Amendment Senators in Congress."
Froman, a San Francisco Bay Area native, purchased her first gun at age 32 after an intruder tried to enter her home. She and Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, who has maintained a high NRA rating throughout the half century he has served in Congress, are just a few of the paradoxical elements in this gun fight.
The fight began, says historian Joyce Lee Malcolm, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"In the '60s, some groups began challenging whether the founding fathers intended the Second Amendment to grant an individual right or a collective right," Malcolm said.
Not a Fair Fight
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned independent, has been using the vast fortune he has amassed as founder of financial data and media firm Bloomberg L.P. to support candidates who will vote for gun control measures.
He along with Americans For Responsible Solutions, founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband astronaut Mark Kelly, say that they seek to provide political cover for lawmakers.
In one example, a Republican who worked for a GOP president ended up siding with Democrats on the gun control issue. The 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in which former White House press secretary Jim Brady was injured, led to Brady and wife Sarah's eventual endorsement of then-candidate Bill Clinton, who said the he would support what is now the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
The bill, signed by Clinton in 1993, established a federal background check on firearms sales purchased from licensed dealers. Sarah Brady gives Reagan's backing a lot of credit for the passage of that bill.
"[President Reagan] really supported the Brady law. Called members and lobbied, gave a lot of the Republicans cover. And we were able to pass laws with bipartisan support. A lot of good Republicans voted with us," Brady said in a recent interview with Woodruff.
Over the years Brady has stayed in the fight, advocating for background checks as part of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group that in 2001 was renamed honor of Brady and her husband's efforts.
Brady acknowledges that the NRA's ability to support lawmakers and federal judges since the early days of the fight, along with its image, have led to its success. "It's not that they're more powerful. It's that the perception is there. And perception is reality when it comes to many people," Brady said.
In order to have a chance at victory, Drutman says that it hasn't been a fair fight and that the gun control advocates need to redouble their efforts.
"The gun industry has basically had its way with Congress because there's been nobody fighting back." Drutman said. "There are very few issues in American politics that are this one-sided and have been this one-sided for so long in terms of the organized interests that have been involved and the money they've thrown into it."
Michael Fritz contributed to this story.