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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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And in September 1994, two months before midterm elections, the Democratic-majority Congress passed a federal assault weapons ban. That law was only in effect for a decade and not been renewed. (Today, it is seen as limited in scope because it only banned a few guns and was easily evaded.) In 1994 as today, the NRA would oppose any new federal gun controls; but the Clinton-era bills came at a particularly volatile time.

Toward the end of the 1992 presidential race and early in Clinton’s first term, the Justice Department was involved in two badly botched raids that played into the NRA’s worst fears about government infringement on gun rights. In the Ruby Ridge incident, snipers killed the wife and son of a separatist who was believed to have illegal weapons after a gunfight and siege in Idaho. And in Waco, Texas, a DOJ standoff with armed religious fundamentalists ended in a fire killing 76 followers, including children. 

In 1994’s congressional elections, the NRA was part of the rightwing coalition that railed against federal government and the Clinton administration, and helped elect Republicans to their first House majority in a half-century. Clinton blamed the defeat on the gun laws, and ever since virtually any Democrat who was not personally exposed to gun violence has feared the NRA’s wrath. That appears to be changing after the Newtown shooting, as Democratic governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo have fast-tracked new gun controls and Congress is studying reforms, but barely two years ago in 2010, Nevada’s Reid added the gun research restrictions to the Obamacare bill—underscoring the gun lobby’s enduring power and influence.

The first restrictions on federal research on gun violence came soon after the GOP took control of the House in 1994. Two years later, House Republicans banned the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying links between gun use and violence. Before the ban, medical journals relying on federal research discussed studies that found people living in homes with guns faced a 2.7-fold increased risk of murder and 4.8-fold increased risk of suicide, compared to homes without guns.

The NRA wanted to steer political and scholarly debate away from the links between guns and violence and instead focus on gun ownership as an expression of constitutional freedom. Ironically, just as Reagan came around to support the Brady bill after he left the White House, former Republican Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas, who led the 1996 effort to stop federal gun research, last July wrote a Washington Post commentary regretting that effort and calling for the research to resume.

Today, many Americans were outraged that the NRA’s called for arming teachers after the Newtown massacre. But in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, the NRA lobbied regulators to allow pilots to carry firearms—the same prescription. And during the George W. Bush administration, the NRA saw years of legislative victories—including more limits on releasing federal data on guns and shielding gun makers from lawsuits.

In 2003, the Tiahrt amendment, named after former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-KS, restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from releasing information on tracing guns used in crimes, making it harder to track illegal gun trafficking.

In 2005, Congress immunized the gun industry from liability in most lawsuits related to “criminal or unlawful misuse” of a gun. The law was the NRA-led response to suits by gun control groups that sought to have the manufacturers pay for the injuries caused by gun violence. “The law has not stopped gun litigation, but it has created an obstacle,” a Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence spokesman told this month.     

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