The NRA has its opponents outgunned but suddenly finds itself in a shooting match with fellow conservatives.
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THE MCCAIN AND STRICKLAND decisions bothered some conservatives, but the biggest bombshell was yet to come: the news that the NRA was seriously considering an endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid later in the fall. The Nevada Democrat’s seat is one of the GOP’s best pickup opportunities this year. His challenger, Sharron Angle, was a Second Amendment stalwart who won the Republican nomination with heavy grassroots conservative support. An NRA endorsement had the potential to counteract Reid’s party-line liberal image and blow the race wide open.
Reid has a better record on guns than the average Democrat and is certainly less hostile to the Second Amendment than just about anyone in his party’s leadership. But his NRA ratings have fluctuated from year to year, ranging all the way from A+ to F. Reid played a major role in passing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Firearms Act, which shielded gun manufacturers from abusive lawsuits. Yet he also voted for the Brady bill and the 1994 crime bill containing the original federal assault weapons ban. Gun Owners of America has catalogued more than 40 anti-gun votes he has cast during his Senate career.
“He’s like Arlen Specter,” Gun Owners’ Pratt says of Reid. “He’s usually with us when we don’t need him.” Another conservative activist fumed, “Are we supposed to be thankful that he hasn’t screwed us lately? That’s only because he hasn’t had a chance to.” Conservative reactions grew even more hostile when it became known that Reid secured a $61 million earmark for the Clark County Shooting Park. At the ribbon cutting for the 2,9000-square foot park, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre lavished Reid with praise: “I also want to thank you, Senator, for your support every day for the Second Amendment and for the rights of American gun owners.”
NRA spokesmen have also advanced the argument that if Reid goes down, he will be replaced as Senate Democratic leader by either Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or Dick Durbin (D-IL)-both liberals with far worse records on gun rights than Reid. Pratt argues that even if the NRA declines to endorse Reid, the damage has already been done. “I don’t know if he needs a piece of paper saying, ‘We hereby officially endorse you,’” he says. “They’ve already said more than enough that Reid could send out in targeted mailings to gun owners if he wanted to.”
The rumored Reid endorsement hasn’t played well with the NRA’s rank and file. Some launched a website called NRA Members for Angle, urging the organization to back the Republican challenger instead. A conservative organization commissioned a poll of Nevada NRA members, which found that nearly 70 percent would be “upset” if the group endorsed Reid and 59 percent said they would cancel their memberships.
One source close to the NRA told TAS that 95 percent of endorsement decisions are easy, because one candidate is clearly superior to the others. The problem, says another conservative activist, is the remaining 5 percent: “The right-to-life groups have a three-point test where you’re either going to get the endorsement or you’re not. With Americans for Tax for Reform, you either take the pledge or you don’t. But in this situation, there is a judgment call.”
While some conservatives have the NRA in their crosshairs, many others think the group’s critics are shooting blanks. “There’s this misconception that ‘NRA’ stands for ‘National Republican Association,’” Independence Institute firearms policy expert David Kopel told TAS. “It doesn’t. The NRA is a pro-Second Amendment organization. When they can advance that cause by working with Republicans, they do. When they can advance it by working with Democrats, they do that too.” Consequently, Kopel argues, “They’d be nuts not to consider an endorsement of Harry Reid.”
SO FAR THIS YEAR, the NRA has given 71 percent of its political action committee’s contributions to Republicans. Usually, that percentage is even higher. And there are good reasons for many of the Democratic exceptions. Consider Ted Strickland in Ohio. Although he is a liberal on most other issues, when he was in Congress he represented a rural district and consistently supported gun rights. Similarly, Kasich is a conservative but he represented the kind of suburban district where the conventional wisdom of the time held gun control was popular-so he voted for the Brady bill and supplied the winning margin for the assault weapons ban.
“That was the first significant federal gun ban in the nation’s history,” says Kopel. “So [Strickland vs. Kasich] was a pretty easy choice if you care about gun rights rather than the Republican Party.” And NRA leaders make no secret about their priorities. “We are part of the conservative movement, but the Second Amendment is unique because it transcends politics; it transcends race, gender, socioeconomic, and certainly partisan lines,” Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, told Politico. “I may have strong personal views on a lot of things — whether it’s health care, immigration, the bank bailouts, taking over car companies, all those things — but that’s not my job. My job and my fiduciary responsibility is to get up every day and protect the Second Amendment.”
It’s an approach that has paid dividends. While nearly every other conservative cause has suffered setbacks under the Obama administration, gun-rights supporters have continued to score legislative victories despite Democratic supermajorities. They were able to get the health care bill to include a ban on higher medical insurance premiums for gun-owning households. A bill cracking down on credit card companies was amended to allow people to carry loaded weapons in national parks. The judiciary has been even more congenial, with two Supreme Court decisions since 2008 ruling that the Second Amendment does indeed confer an individual right to own guns. “The last two years have been a disaster for us,” anti-gun Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) confided to the New York Times. “A lot of members are just afraid of the NRA.”
The NRA has struck this fear into the political class’s hearts by being tough on opponents — and tougher still on erstwhile allies caught curtailing Second Amendment rights. They declined to endorse President George H. W. Bush, an NRA life member, for reelection in 1992 because he signed an executive order banning the import of some semiautomatic firearms and was insufficiently resolute in opposition to the Brady bill. In 1994, they helped defeat longtime supporters Congressman Jack Brooks (D-TX) and House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) because of their support for the crime bill containing the assault weapons ban.
“The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you’re out,” Bill Clinton later recalled in his memoirs. “The gun lobby claimed to have defeated nineteen of the twenty-four members on its hit list. They did at least that much damage and could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House Speaker.” Robert Spitzer, the SUNY Cortland political science professor who wrote The Politics of Gun Control, told TAS, “Very few advocacy groups would turn on onetime allies like that, but that’s part of what makes the NRA so effective.”
All this makes the NRA’s dalliance with Reid puzzling to those who’ve admired the gun lobby’s hardball politics. “They’re mad at Kasich for the same votes Reid cast,” says one conservative activist, who thinks any Reid endorsement should be contingent on a major legislative concession like the passage of Sen. John Thune’s (R-SD) concealed-carry reciprocity bill or the defeat of the Disclose Act. “A shooting range is nice, but not good enough.”
OTHERS ARGUE THAT THE NRA gets too much credit for recent Second Amendment triumphs. Consider the example of Alan Gura, the lawyer who won D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, two important cases affirming an individual right to keep and bear arms. Gura points out that the NRA, fearing a loss, was slow to back Heller. He also claims they made his job more difficult in McDonald. The Supreme Court granted the NRA’s request to gobble up 10 of Gura’s 30 minutes for oral argument time. The NRA said it was concerned about Gura’s decision to go beyond traditional due process arguments. The libertarian attorney shoots back, “They were so obsessed with getting themselves back into the story and getting credit for the outcome that they actually interfered with my presentation of the case.”
Gura maintains that he was never going to give short shrift to the arguments favored by the NRA but that there was also a need for “substantial argument” based on the 14th Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause. He contends that this emphasis helped ensure that Justice Clarence Thomas “voted with the originalist side.” “I was right and they were wrong,” Gura says of the NRA. “There were not five votes for due process incorporation.” The Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro agreed, writing at the time, “If the NRA were concerned about the final outcome of the case, it would be unlikely to attack Alan’s strategy or question his preparation (an odd way to be ‘helpful’ to one’s side).”
The NRA has weathered tactical disagreements before, including arguments between pragmatists and hardliners within its own ranks. “For much of its history, the NRA was mainly concerned with hunting and marksmanship,” says Spitzer. “It wasn’t until the 1930s that it really got involved in the politics of gun control and the more ideological faction didn’t take over until the ‘Cincinnati revolution’ in the 1970s.” Although he doesn’t believe it will have much long-term impact, Spitzer says this is the most significant infighting between the NRA and other conservatives he’s seen in years.
“There’s a well-established tradition of taking the NRA for granted,” says Kopel. “But whatever is going on with other issues and organizations, they still have to protect gun rights and their own ability to participate in the next election.” That’s fine, says Viguerie, but the NRA “shouldn’t take conservatives for granted” either. With November fast approaching, it might be a good time for a ceasefire.
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