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Untold Story of Election 2008: The Death of the NRA

Among the big losers in November were the NRA and the myth of the once-feared "NRA Voter." Reform of our gun laws is on the way.

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The NRA is going to have a hard time persuading America that it should awake from this nightmare. Not only do majorities support these strictures, the gun lobby recently lost one of its most effective arguments. When the Supreme Court decided in June in favor of individual gun rights in District of Colombia v. Heller, it settled the nagging question about whether the Constitution protected the right of an individual to own a gun, or whether that right only existed in the context of public militias. While in one sense Heller was a major victory for the gun lobby, it also deprived it of the legal ambiguity that allowed it to bludgeon gun owners with the idea that any gun-control law would inevitably lead to ATF SWAT teams -- or, in the case of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, U.N. blue helmets -- taking away all of their guns. Crucially, the decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, stated that "[l]ike most rights, the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

"Heller legally established the middle ground that we have long advocated," says Daniel R. Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "It basically said the government could regulate guns in public while guaranteeing the right to private ownership. It obliterates the NRA's 'slippery slope' argument that any gun law [could someday] lead to the government taking away your guns."

There is more bad news for the post-Charlton Heston NRA. Along with losing its scariest tactic and the aura of being able to swing elections (and thus scare Democrats away from championing gun control), it is also being challenged on its long-held assumption that it and it alone speaks for America's gun owners and hunters. A couple of years ago, the American Hunters and Sharpshooters Association was launched by Ray Schoenke, a pro-gun-control hunter, sportsman and liberal Democrat, to create an alternative home for those who support the Second Amendment as well as gun control. Along with advocating "commonsense" gun law reform, Schoenke's group backs strong environmental-protection laws in defense of hunting and fishing lands. The contradiction between the NRA's purported love of the outdoors lifestyle and its alliance with reactionary anti-environment politicians has long been the organization's soft underbelly, ripe for attack. Schoenke's group is going after it.

"I've been saying for years that Democrats shouldn't cede the gun vote to the NRA," says Schoenke. "There are over 80 million gun owners in the U.S., and fewer than 3 million belong to that group. They do not speak for all of us -- especially those of us who are Democrats, progressives and conservationists."

Not surprisingly, the NRA dismisses the AHSA as a sham left-wing project that gives cover to anti-gun politicians posing as friends of hunters. "[ASHA is nothing more than] an effort to mislead and divide the gun-owning community and to dilute gun owners' political impact," fumed an NRA blogger shortly before last month's election, when AHSA's Schoenke was touring states like Ohio and Minnesota in support of Barack Obama. "Anti-gun activists are creat[ing] new organizations with names designed to confuse gun owners and hide the real agenda."

While the AHSA does still have the feel of a letterhead organization, it is possible that it could one day begin to rival the NRA for membership and stature among gun owners. For the NRA, the realization that not all gun owners are Second Amendment absolutists who take NRA political ratings as voting guides must be maddening. The frustration will only deepen in the coming years, as commonsense gun-control legislation is crafted and passed with public support.

 
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