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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?

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The NRA saw its first big political openings under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan had championed state gun control laws when he was California’s governor in 1968—in response to that decade’s race-based violence and Black Panthers showing up with rifles at legislative hearings on proposed gun laws. But unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who was the target of a botched assassination attempt a month after taking office in 1933 and then backed the first federal firearms laws in 1934, Reagan survived an assassination attempt early in his first term in 1981 but would not call for new federal gun controls. He had been elected by a grassroots coalition that included the NRA’s new militant wing.

Today, pollsters will tell you that most Americans believe the Second Amendment grants individuals unfettered gun rights. But this wasn’t always the ‘conventional wisdom’ or a view held by legal scholars. The NRA worked for years to create this paradigm and had rightwing Republicans’ help. In 1982, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Utah’s Orinn Hatch, issued a report, “The Right To Keep and Bear Arms.” It claimed to find “clear—and long lost—proof that the Second Amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.”

That Second Amendment view was not shared by that era’s mainstream Republicans. But starting in the 1970s and through the 1980s, law review articles started appearing touting the NRA’s revisionist view. Two-thirds were written by lawyers who had worked for the NRA or gun groups, the New Yorker reported last April. These efforts were akin to the Tea Party in 2010—part of a leading edge within the GOP to push the party to the right. They succeeded: in 1986, Congress unwound federal gun controls for the first time.

That year’s Firearms Owners Protection Act created what is today called the ‘gun show loophole,’ by loosening restrictions on licensed dealers and unlicensed individuals selling guns at these shows by allowing ‘private sales.’ It also lowered barriers to interstate sales of guns and ammunition through the mail. Congress also loosened other aspects of federal law, such as banning the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from searching gun dealers without a warrant, and barred the government from keeping a database of gun owners. Today, 40 percent of guns are bought at gun shows, according to Temple University’s David Kairys, including 80 percent used in crimes.

Right wingers got a big break in 1989, when a liberal law professor, Sandy Levinson, wrote a Yale Law Review article exploring the rhetorical question of why not take an expansive view of the Second Amendment—just as liberals took an expansive view of the First Amendment in the civil rights movement. Libertarian columnists such as George Will soon touted Levinson’s work as bolstering the NRA viewpoint.

These developments troubled some law-and-order conservatives, such as retired U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who debunked the NRA’s Second Amendment claims in Parade magazine in 1990 and called for new federal gun controls—particularly for handguns and tracing gun ownership. In 1991, he told PBS’s NewsHour that the NRA’s constitutional claims were a “fraud.”

The call for more federal gun control was not acted upon until there was a Democrat in the White House: Bill Clinton. In late 1993, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, expanding the system of background checks to buy a new gun and creating a five-day waiting period before picking it up. It was named for Reagan’s press secretary, who was hit in the 1981 assassination attempt and sustained permanent brain damage. Unlike during his presidency, Reagan supported the Brady bill.

 
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