After a series of missteps that gave President Obama the early advantage in this year’s gun-violence debate, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has struck back.
The powerful gun lobbying group had stumbled in the immediate wake of December’s Newtown, Conn., grade-school massacre, launching a blistering attack on opponents that alienated even some NRA supporters and upped the odds of Obama moving tougher gun laws through Congress.
But three months later, the NRA has regained its footing, rallying gun owners and lawmakers against new gun controls in a fierce lobbying effort that appears to be paying dividends on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, over the last 100 days, Democrats have grown more divided over Obama’s proposed reforms.
An assault weapons ban is on life support and Senate Democrats have failed to entice a single Republican to back universal background checks. Congress also this week solidified four gun-friendly laws as part of legislation to fund the government through September.
To some observers, the shift in momentum comes as no surprise at all.
“[NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre made terrible mistakes early on. They took two very bad spills,” Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University, said Friday in a phone interview. “But they quickly recovered and they assumed their usual position of dominance.
“They may do poorly in the first quarter, but they rally and they’re usually ahead by halftime,” he added. “They’ve been at it a long time. They know what buttons to push.”
Adam Winkler, a constitutional expert at the UCLA School of Law, offered a similar explanation this week, arguing that even when the NRA is on the ropes, it “still sways a lot of voters.”
“The NRA didn’t become the political powerhouse it is by losing high-profile battles,” Winkler, the author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” said Friday in an email.
“Even though the NRA had a poor showing in the November elections, the people whose job it is to know who sways voters — members of Congress — still think it can deliver.”
Those dynamics were laid bare this month during a series of gun-control hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pushed through four separate bills, including a universal background-check proposal and a ban on scores of military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Not only were panel Republicans united against those proposals, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) walked away from negotiations with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over background checks, denying the bill the bipartisan support it will need to pass the full Senate.
Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he won’t include the assault-rifle ban as part of the package he brings to the chamber floor for fear it will doom the other provisions — a move that all but ensures the ban will die as an amendment to the larger bill.
“I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there,” Reid, a long-time opponent of the assault weapons ban, said this week.
Gun-control advocates — pointing to public opinion polls that show overwhelming support for Congress to enact tougher laws — insist they’re still on track to do just that.
“I do not believe that the momentum has stopped,” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Congress’s loudest gun-control advocate, said Friday in a phone interview. “People have not forgotten what happened in Newtown.”
A Democratic strategist familiar with the issue echoed that message, arguing that the more controversial elements of Obama’s gun-control wish-list —particularly the assault weapons ban — were never expected to pass Congress.
By pushing hard for that ban, the strategist said, Democrats were simply negotiating from the left, always with the idea they could cash in that chip to get the universal background checks that stand at the core of their effort to keep violent people from buying guns.
“For once, the Democrats actually did things in a smart way. Instead of starting by giving in, they started by asking for more,” the strategist said. “You could call it a momentum change, but this was always the way this was going to play out.”
Baker, of Rutgers, offered a different forecast, giving even the expanded background check provision “considerably less-than-even” odds of passing Congress this year.
The NRA raised plenty of eyebrows in the weeks immediately following the Newtown massacre when it staged a defiant press conference calling for more guns in schools, then launched a provocative web ad that featured Obama’s young daughters. The moves were condemned by a number of prominent Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough, who accused the group of being extremist.
“What’s wrong with these people?” Scarborough asked in January on his “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC. “Their leadership has dragged them over the cliff, they are now a fringe organization.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a vocal supporter of tougher gun laws, accused the NRA Friday of “manipulating the debate” by “preying on the worst fears” of gun-owning Americans — people who, polls say, support many of the gun controls Obama is urging. He said the NRA’s blanket opposition to tougher laws won’t prevent reformers from fighting for those changes this year.
“We’re going to get one shot at the apple here, one bite,” Quigley said Friday by phone, “and it would be legislative malpractice for us not to try to take it as far as we possibly can.”