Dueling for the NRA Vote
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In October of last year – after he railed against then-Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean for his opposition to the assault-weapons ban – Kerry went outside, brandished his 12-gauge shotgun and in two shots blew two pheasants out of the sky. –CBS News
Quicker than you can say "Charlton Heston, Defender Of Liberty, NRA Commemorative Coin," Americans, 80 million of whom own guns, will cast their vote for president. To woo these voters each candidate must decide just where to position himself on the political tightrope that is the Second Amendment.
And it's a perilous balancing act, indeed.
With the predominantly rural "gun rights" activists on one side and an emerging "gun control" movement on the other, even a modest misstep can cost an election – as Al Gore learned in 2000.
The most common mistake when courting, combating, or talking about the NRA is to view the issue of gun control the same way we do, say, abortion rights – a single issue whose supporters and opponents have nearly identical positions and can be counted on to vote for a particular party. The NRA is much closer to an antiwar coalition whose members have a wide range of views and affiliations. And its leadership's ability to galvanize significant electoral support often depends on the specific policy or electoral race at stake.
Although Kerry seems to have learned from Gore's mistakes and Bush has lost favor among much of the vigilant Second Amendment crowd, conventional wisdom grants NRA endorsement – a lock for Bush – a great deal of political weight. The NRA has been heavily involved in politics since at least 1980, when it endorsed Ronald Reagan for president. Since then, it has become the bogeyman of many a political campaign, wielding clout beyond its numbers, and is largely responsible for what many consider to be some of the world's most reckless gun control policies. But does it deserve the mythic make-or-break reputation this time around?
GOP is no NRA VIP
The story of the GOP's relationship with the NRA and the gun rights movement as a whole is one of a roller-coaster effort to tame the movement's predominantly libertarian sympathies into a faction of the Republican party – with varying degrees of success. NRA leadership often functions as a liaison between the Republican party and its membership, often testing its own political skills along the way. To that end, the board currently includes Bob Barr, whose previous job was to represent the state of Georgia in the U.S. Congress.
Still, while the NRA leadership is capable of talking a good Second Amendment game – at least while appealing to the lowest common denominator – most of its members tend to be pragmatic when it comes to policy.
In a 2002 appearance, Executive VP Wayne LaPierre compared one gun-control group's effort to limit the Second Amendment to "a shadowy network of extremist social guerrillas... like Osama bin Laden." But when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who's almost single-handedly kept the Assault Weapons Ban in play, was able to tack the ban's renewal onto an NRA-backed bill designed to provide gun manufacturers with immunity from lawsuits, the same LaPierre was ready to play ball.
Here's how it went down according to former NRA executive and gun industry lobbyist, Robert A. Ricker:
"The tension between pragmatic NRA leaders and the minuscule number of diehard right-wing board members played itself out in the debate over the immunity bill. According to insiders, LaPierre was willing to accept a renewed assault weapons ban in exchange for passage of gun industry immunity. But when the far-right factions of the NRA found out, Wayne's world came crashing down. The NRA was forced to issue a statement denying any deal and ultimately had to oppose final passage of the immunity bill with the assault weapons ban and gun show amendments attached."
Ricker says, "The power of the gun lobby is more perception than reality." In fact, he claims that even among the NRA's 4 million members, "many of these join only to get the gun magazines or insurance. They believe in the Second Amendment but understand that an AK-47 isn't a hunting rifle." It often puts them at odds with the group's top brass which so often parrots GOP talking points to suggest that they're actually more politician than freedom fighter. At its convention in April in the gun-saturated swing state of Pennsylvania, NRA President Kayne B. Robinson warned members "In Kerry's America, guns and hunting are like polo and yachting – for the elite."
Second Amendment fundamentalists, not so affectionately referred to as "gun nuts," are fed up with Bush. Sam Cohen, director of a New Hampshire NRA affiliate, asked Karl Rove "whether President Bush was aware that many thousands of gun-rights activists around the country felt so strongly about this that we had drawn a line in the sand (my exact words), and would not support any politician – even President Bush himself – who supported this atrocious legislation." Angel Shamaya, executive director of KeepAndBearArms.com, a proud member of the Anybody But Bush crowd is equally disenchanted ''Gun owners who know the issues know that Bush is all talk...he's turned out to be a phony in so many ways, I'm embarrassed I voted for him in 2000.''
In sum, the gun lobby today is divided into at least three camps: A political leadership more interested in electing Republicans and strengthening connections with the Washington elite; strict libertarians less interested in Bush's second term than in the Second Amendment; and sporting enthusiasts who like the magazine.
The NRA Deserves a Place Next to Nader and the Supreme Court in 2000
The value of an NRA endorsement should not be underestimated: Since 1980, with it no Republican candidate has lost an election; without it, no Republican has won.
One such success story was the 2000 presidential election. Not only did the group endorse Bush, it sold a video optimistically proclaiming that with him, "we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office."
Last month, while promoting his new book on The Charlie Rose Show, Bill Clinton didn't mince words when explaining why Gore lost in the former president's home state: "I'll tell you exactly what happened in Arkansas... The NRA beat him in Arkansas. The NRA and Ralph Nader stand right behind the Supreme Court in their ability to claim that they could put Bush in the White House."
Guns played a major role in securing Bush victories in Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and New Hampshire (whose license plates succinctly capture the libertarian streak in the gun rights' rank and file: "Live free or die"). West Virginia is historically a Democratic state. Before 2000, Democrats had carried the state in three consecutive presidential elections, five of the past six and eight of 10.
Party affiliation was not the problem for Al Gore; it was about guns, plain and simple. According to the Congressional Quarterly, "Bush is credited with carrying the state because there is a sizable population of Democrats who favor gun owners' rights..." Even more surprising is the fact that Gore lost his home state of Tennessee – the first time a major presidential candidate had accomplished this feat since George McGovern's doomed campaign of 1968.
Then of course there's Florida where, at last year's NRA convention, Gov. Jeb Bush told members, ''if it were not for your active involvement, it is safe to say that my brother would not have been elected president.''
As Clinton and others have pointed out, the NRA poured its resources (including $16.8 million dollars on federal campaigns as reported by the New York Times) into the election, pairing an effective phone-banking effort with a targeted ad campaign to spread its doomsday message that "Al Gore wants to take away your guns."
While Gore never proposed any such thing, the NRA's scare tactics received the unexpected assistance of one of his worst enemies: Al Gore. Though most gun-control groups insist that NRA influence was overblown, Kristen Rand, of the Violence Policy Center, disagrees. She points out that Gore's support for the licensing of all new handguns, which went beyond any measure then in Congress (and had virtually no chance of passing anyway), was a major miscalculation. According to Rand, it cleared the way for NRA activists to convince swing voters that Gore was, in NRA parlance, a "gun snatcher": "What was not understood was what a real rallying cry licensing would be. (For gun rights advocates) licensing equals registration; registration equals confiscation."
A single misstep cost Gore key states in a close election.
NRA Endorsement in 2004: What's it Good For?
The marquee gun issue of 2004 is the Assault Weapons Ban. The NRA has thus far withheld from endorsing Bush officially, choosing instead to dangle it as a Sept. 14 carrot. On Sept. 13th the highly contentious Assault Weapons Ban will "sunset" after 10 years if congress doesn't act to extend it. The ban targets semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with certain combat features but doesn't effect hunting rifles or guns designed specifically for sport.
Polls show that nearly four out five Americans – including over half of all gun owners – are in favor of the ban, putting Bush in an awkward political position. Fully comprehending the importance of the "gun vote" to his campaign, the Bush team headlined a news release, "Top 10 Reasons Why John Kerry Is Wrong for Rural America," and placed his "F" rating from the NRA at Number 4.
In a successful attempt to eat his cake and have it too, Bush has lent his verbal support to the ban's renewal but refuses to make any overtures to Congress. In turn, the Republican leadership, Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Bill Frist of – you guessed it – Tennessee, refuses to bring the bill to the floor saying it will only do so if prompted by the president.
Voila! Bush strikes a pose for public safety while winking to his Second Amendment supporters. As for the bill, the signing of which would be "political death" according to a lobbyist for gun manufacturers? It never reaches his desk.
Which would be the whole story if the top brass of the NRA represented America's gun owners. Bush gets the NRA seal of approval; the whole of the gun rights movement campaigns on his behalf; and he wins again.
But there are several reasons why the GOP dreams of a replay are unlikely to come true.
To begin with, unlike 2000, when NRA ads were instrumental in defeating Gore, campaign finance laws now ban the use of corporate and labor union money for ads targeting a particular candidate (either pro or con) within 30 days of an election. This would, of course, severely hamper any advertising aimed at drawing a distinction between two candidates who, according to CBS News, "hold the same position on the most pressing gun-control issues – extending the assault weapons ban, closing the gun show "loophole" and strictly enforcing existing gun laws."
Phone banking and other methods are an option but they require a sizable volunteer force and you don't get the same bang for your buck. In response, the NRA has created its own news agency, because, as LaPierre says, "if you own the news operation, you can say whatever you want. If you don't, you're gagged." NRA News may well survive legal challenges and successfully open a loophole in campaign finance law allowing them to broadcast editorials 24 hours a day to listeners. Problem is, NRA News hasn't really got any. The press has jumped all over its campaign finance shenanigans but the actual content and listenership of the "news agency" hasn't registered a blip on anyone's radar.
Then there's the fact that the political and ideological wings of the gun rights movement are often at odds, and never more so than during this election year. Many libertarians are up in arms at the Bush administration's cavalier treatment of the Bill of Rights. In the name of the "war on terror," the Patriot Act has turned certain rights – illegal search and seizure, due process, right to counsel, trial by jury, cruel and unusual punishment; aka amendments 4 through 8 – into mere contingencies.
A writer for a prominent libertarian blog caused a ripple in libertarian circles recently by proclaiming that, "This is really the first presidential race of my adult life in which I've had a very strong commitment about which major-party candidate was the lesser evil." The "lesser evil" he's referring to, the one he's voting for in November, is John Kerry.
Democrats can also breathe easier knowing that Kerry is no Al Gore. While Gore took to gun control rhetoric – presumably seeing, in the anti-gun million-mom march, a million polling levers pulled in his direction – Kerry has heeded the lesson and taken up arms. Waving his shotgun, he eagerly identifies himself as a lifelong hunter and is even reported to be a good shot. In a well-publicized photo op last Halloween in Iowa, he shot a couple of pheasants like a pro. Kerry is clearly aiming to persuade moderate gun owners – those who understand that the AK-47 isn't a hunting rifle – that their guns are their guns.
Yet, Kerry could attach a shotgun rack to his campaign jet and still be opposed by the NRA leadership. More important is the fact that in the end the imprimatur of the NRA isn't as decisive as it is rumored to be. As long as the gun rights movement remains fractured into Second Amendment fundamentalists, GOP-connected politicos and sportsmen in it for the freebies, the NRA isn't quite the bogeyman it once was.
And when the NRA begins to crop up in Democrats' nightmares, they should remind themselves that the most abhorred "gun snatcher" in the consciousness of the gun rights movement is William Jefferson Clinton – a man who made it to the White House, twice.
Evan Derkacz is AlterNet's Editorial Fellow.