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Can Obama Slay the NRA Beast?

Obama will announce a gun violence package on Wednesday. Can his reforms overpower a shady, extremist and powerful NRA?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is no stranger to domestic violence. His father killed himself with a gunshot to his head more than four decades ago. And his state, Nevada, is no stranger as well. It’s had the nation’s highest rate of women killed by men—most by gunshots—during five of the past six years, the Violence Policy Center reported.   

But in 2010—where Nevada had that bloody distinction for the third year in a row—Reid did the gun lobby a big favor. Pro-gun libertarians were saying that the president’s health care reforms would allow government to compile a registry of gun owners. Reid feared the rumors could derail the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. So on page 776 of the giant bill, he added lines barring doctors from gathering information on a patient’s guns or ammunition, and also barred insurers from charging higher rates to gun owners.     

The National Rifle Association wanted the language, the Washington Post noted, which child health advocates and pediatricians noticed recently. Some were furious, asking how could they treat victims of violence if they could not ask about guns at home? Reid’s staff tried to spin it, saying he put it in because of insurance issues. But most of the language concerned limiting would-be gun registries, gun databases and data gathering.

“This illustrates the fact that the NRA has insinuated themselves into the small crevices of anything they can do in their power to prohibit sensible gun safety measures,” Denise Dowd, a Kansas City, Missouri, emergency care physician told the Post.

Insinuate is the right word. Since the early 1980s, a newly militant NRA has been at the forefront of finding, exploiting and nurturing cracks in state and federal gun controls—just as it has created and publicized an exaggerated view of Second Amendment rights. While its political successes are undeniable, it also has built a myth that it cannot be challenged—a myth that is starting to crumble in 2013’s emerging gun control debates.

Understanding how and what the gun lobby has accomplished is a prerequisite to unraveling its political influence and addressing gun violence—and assessing whether President Obama’s pending gun control reforms are likely to be effective.

A Long And Dark Shadow

It’s hard to believe that Reid’s staff didn’t know that the NRA and Republicans have put limits on the federal government’s abilities to collect, study and share gun-related crime data since 1996—part of a strategy to minimize informed public debate. But suppressing government and academic research on guns was only one part of the NRA playbook.

The gun lobby sponsored academics to write tilted Second Amendment analyses touting an individual’s gun rights while omitting America’s history of gun controls. They lobbied Congress and states to roll back as many gun laws as possible, or grant new privileges to gun owners, such as allowing concealed weapons in public. They donated to political campaigns—ramping up after horrific incidents such as 1999’s Columbine High School massacre—and were most successful when Republicans were in power.

As Dowd noted, they kept targeting and finessing the fine print of the law. Before the Newtown school shootings, they were the only group pushing the Justice Department to loosen rules letting non-citizens buy guns, which it did last June. And days before the Newtown shooting, the NRA was urging members to comment on a proposed DOJ regulation to allow the use of “armor-piercing” bullets for “sporting purposes.”

The modern gun lobby emerged in the late 1970s, after a libertarian faction led by Harlon Carter, a champion marksman and ex-federal Border Control Agency chief staged a coup inside the NRA and replaced a board of directors who wanted to focus on its historic hunting and marksmanship mission. (The NRA had supported gun control laws since its founding in 1871, but started having reservations in the late 1960s.) After the 1977 coup, Carter changed the NRA motto to an edited Second Amendment, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” That reflected its new agenda: making exaggerated constitutional claims of gun rights—to push back on gun controls; and a view that government was the enemy of gun owners’ freedom.

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