A nascent discussion about gun laws has dominated the nation’s agenda during the week following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. But one dominant voice has been missing from the debate thus far.
Since the massacre, the National Rifle Association, which is the largest group representing gun rights, has mostly been silent. That is about to change.
The NRA is holding a news conference in Washington on Friday morning. In addition, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s CEO, is scheduled to be a guest Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
The group is not expected to come out in favor of any proposal to restrict gun ownership.
“That flies in the face of everything they’ve done for years,” says Scott Melzer, author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War. “They would lose a ton of support from their base, which believes if you lose any gun rights, eventually you’re going to lose them all.”
Although people think of the NRA as being synonymous with the gun lobby — and it has by far the largest membership and the biggest budget — other gun owner groups often take an even harder line, leaving the NRA with little room to maneuver politically, even if it wanted to.
In contrast to President Obama and congressional Democrats, Republicans have mostly been quiet or skeptical about the prospects for gun control in the coming year. But the early statements from gun groups have made it clear they’ll work hard to block gun control ideas such as banning assault rifles or stiffening background check requirements.
“If a Republican votes for any form of gun control, they are inviting the NRA and other groups to run a primary opponent against them, and they’re asking to be unseated,” says Melzer, who chairs the sociology department at Albion College in Michigan.
The Cincinnati Coup
The NRA was founded back in 1871 and for much of its history devoted itself largely to issues of marksmanship, such as safety and training.
But the political landscape around guns began shifting roughly a century after the group’s founding. Following passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, new groups came on the scene devoted to protecting Second Amendment rights in the political arena.
“Basically, after the competition in gun rights started, the NRA was forced to rethink how to do things,” says Phil Watson, director of special projects for the Second Amendment Foundation, which has won a number of high-profile legal battles. “The presence of other groups being out there forced the NRA to become more of what they are today.”
An internal coup at the NRA’s annual meeting in 1977 in Cincinnati forced out old-school shooters and hunters who did not want the group deeply engaged in politics and ushered in new leadership that reshaped the NRA into the lobbying powerhouse it has become.
“When people say gun lobby, they mean NRA,” says Harry Wilson, author of Guns, Gun Control and Elections.
Other Groups More ‘Strident’
Gun control advocates think of the NRA as being “strident,” but other groups at both the federal and state levels often take an even harder line, says Wilson, a political scientist at Roanoke College in Virginia.
While the NRA has been keeping mum, representatives from groups such as the Gun Owners of America have been fixtures on cable talk shows over the past week, arguing against gun control measures.
Michael Hammond, legal counsel for the Gun Owners of America, points out that Connecticut already bans assault weapons. “Why in heaven’s name does anyone think enacting the same law [in Washington] as was on the books in Connecticut would produce a different result?” he asks.
Hammond says that numerous gun laws enacted since 1968 have done nothing to deter gun violence; if anything, he suggests, they have made the problem worse.
“The difference with the NRA is that after Columbine, we took the position that no gun control was appropriate,” he says, referring to the mass school shooting in 1999. “After Columbine, the situation looks a lot worse than it does now, in terms of ineffectual gun control legislation, and we were able to stop it then.”
No Moderate Alternative
In the aftermath of Newtown, even some gun owners have expressed support for ideas such as limiting the size of ammunition clips. But there’s no organized group that speaks for more moderate gun rights supporters, Andrew Rotherham argues in Time.
“The NRA and its even more radical cousins are pretty much exclusively focused on maintaining access to all kinds of firearms and ammunition,” he writes.
As Albion’s Melzer points out, there have been efforts over the years by various groups to “peel off” more moderate members from the NRA, but they haven’t enjoyed sustained success.
Richard Feldman is trying. A former NRA regional political director, Feldman helped negotiate requirements for child safety locks with the Clinton administration as an industry trade association official.
Now he has founded a group called the Independent Firearms Owners Association, which includes on its board a number of retired law enforcement officers. “There are 15 million self-identified liberals that own guns — that’s four times the size of the NRA,” he says.
But while Feldman sounds more open to compromise than the other gun groups, he shares their belief that “the issue is rarely the gun, but rather in whose hands are the guns” — another way of saying that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
Like other gun rights advocates, Feldman says he’s warming to the idea of arming teachers and school officials as the best means of avoiding a repeat of the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“If Congress goes ahead and repasses the 1994 ban [on assault weapons], they can pat themselves on the back, but they are kidding the American people, and gun owners know it,” Feldman says.