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How the NRA Went From Best Friend of the Nation's Police to Harsh Enemy of Law Enforcement

As it became more unwilling to compromise over even minor gun controls, the NRA is now on the bad side of police.

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Before the Senate voted on DeConcini's bill in June, top conservatives such as Barry Goldwater, a lifetime NRA member who had appeared in the NRA's pro-gun ads, told the Washington Post that assault guns “have no place in anybody’s arsenal. If any SOB can’t hit a deer with one shot, then he ought to quit shooting.”

The NRA did not see the backlash that was coming. Needless to say, the Senate passed DeConcini’s proposal 51-49 in June 1989 as part of that year’s federal crime bill. It did not become law because Bush vetoed the bill, saying it wasn’t tough enough. The NRA was believed to be behind that action. While it would be five more years before Congress passed another assault weapon ban, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton, the effort started with former NRA supporters who no longer bought the gun lobby’s rhetoric.

The Backlash Continued

Meanwhile, the Brady Bill—named after Reagan's press secretary who suffered permanent brain damage in a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan—resurfaced. In May 1991, NRA icon Reagan attended a press conference at a Washington hospital with James Brady's wife and backed the waiting period for gun buyers. “It’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns,” the ex-president said.

The NRA did its best to discredit Reagan in a recorded phone call telling members, “For more than 30 years, a liberal left has been discrediting Reagan as stupid, lazy, reactionary and a troglodyte. But for the next few days he’s going to be praised as wise, courageous and visionary.”

Reagan’s remarks did not assure the bill’s passage. That finally came three years later. But it was part of a political tide that turned against the NRA’s absolutist positions and hyperbolic rhetoric. History showed that reasonable gun controls were warranted and acceptable to both parties and that the moral high ground was with public safety—not unbending rights to firearms. This is the same calculation President Obama is making in 2013 after the Newtown shooting.

One day after Obama chastized the politics of extremists in his second inaugural, it was telling that NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre tried to punch back hard, doing what the NRA has always done: exaggerate the threat and wave the flag. He was the NRA’s top lobbyist 20 years ago when the NRA went after police chiefs and Republicans in Congress, and the Bush- and Clinton-era gun controls were adopted. LaPierre’s remarks on Tuesday to a hunting convention in Nevada echoed what he said 20 years ago, saying the federal government was ready to seize or tax all guns, hurting honest citizens and helping criminals.

As was the case two decades ago, the NRA hasn’t changed. But the country, then and again in 2013, has.  

Author’s note: The sources used for this article include several books, notably Under Fire: The NRA And The Battle For Gun Control, by Osha Gray Davidson; Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler; and Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture And American Democracy, by Joan Burbick; as well as the many footnoted sources in those books, and interviews and e-mails with the authors and other experts.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).