After three women were shot dead inside a suburban Milwaukee spa, a local TV news bulletin interrupted the broadcast of a football game between the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams.
Moments later, a 30-second ad followed from the National Rifle Association, warning a second term for President Barack Obama would “threaten our right to self-defense.”
In the presidential race’s final days, the self-proclaimed “foremost defender” of the Second Amendment is placing ads in some of the most competitive states, including Wisconsin and Florida, where high-profile shootings this year attracted national attention. While polls show gun issues don’t register among most voters’ top concerns, Republican nominee Mitt Romney will benefit from the NRA energizing supporters in key states.
“The NRA is very active in turning out the vote,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Tarrance Group who conducts the bipartisan Battleground Poll. “If all else is even and argued to a draw, that’s where gun owners could have an affect.”
The NRA aired two TV ads 2,156 times in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and Virginia in the two weeks between Oct. 9 and Oct. 27, the fourth-biggest presidential TV ad campaign during that time among groups not affiliated with either candidate, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
“Voters that care about Second Amendment rights are an important part of our base turnout strategy,” said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. “If they’re mobilized to go out and vote, that helps us.”
The NRA’s ads mislead voters, said Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman. He pointed to laws signed by Obama that allow concealed weapons in national parks and in checked luggage on Amtrak trains.
“President Obama’s record makes clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment and the tradition of gun ownership in this country,” Fetcher said in an e-mail. “He believes we can take common-sense steps under existing law to keep our streets safe and to stem the flow of illegal guns to criminals.”
The NRA ad that aired Oct. 21 during the Packers game shows a woman walking alone and looking over her shoulder at a man who follows, as a narrator urges viewers to “defend freedom, defeat Obama.”
The juxtaposition of that spot with news that a husband shot and killed his wife and two other women before turning the gun on himself pleased Jeff Nass, president of Wisconsin Force, an NRA affiliate. He said the shooting highlighted the need for people to carry firearms.
“That’s why you carry when you go to the beauty parlor,” Nass said. “One of those people there could have been carrying and could have stopped that.”
The shooting at the Brookfield, Wisconsin salon happened 11 weeks after another gunman killed six people and himself about 20 miles away at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, another Milwaukee suburb.
In Florida, where the NRA is also airing ads, an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead in the Orlando area in February, and the gunman claimed self-defense.
Another group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is airing its own ad in Colorado, where 12 died and 58 were injured in July when a gunman opened fire inside an Aurora theater during a showing of the latest Batman movie.
The ad, which aired 28 times this month, features Stephen Barton, who survived the Aurora shooting and urges viewers to “demand a plan” to reduce gun violence from the candidates. The group was co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Sitting in an empty movie theater, Barton tells viewers that 48,000 Americans will be murdered with guns during the next presidential term.
“Enough to fill over 200 theaters,” Barton says.
The presidential campaigns have mentioned guns in just one TV ad in advance of the Nov. 6 general election. A Spanish- language spot by Romney that aired a total of nine times in Florida and Las Vegas attacks Obama over operation Fast and Furious, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency lost track of about 2,000 weapons, which turned up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico.
The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA has been using Obama, who said in an Oct. 16 debate that he supports an assault weapons ban, to rally its members. The headline on the cover of group’s October issue of American Rifleman is “Hand Obama His Walking Papers.” The image is a mock check, with Obama’s face on it, being made out to the NRA.
“If President Obama is re-elected, we’re going to see an anti-Second-Amendment, anti-freedom rampage in this country like we’ve never seen before,” said NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre while endorsing Romney this month at a campaign rally in Fishersville, Virginia.
Gun maker Sturm Ruger & Co. (RGR), based in Southport, Connecticut, stopped taking orders from March to May, the first time ever, to catch up to demand. Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., of Springfield, Massachusetts, has estimated sales of more than $530 million in its current fiscal year, a 29 percent increase from last year, said Jeffrey Buchanan, the company’s chief financial officer, during a September call with investors.
The number of federally licensed gun dealers increased in 2011 and is on pace to do so again this year, according to ATF data. That hasn’t happened since 1992.
“The recent political environment has been favorable at both a state and federal level, highlighted by the upcoming presidential election,” said P. James Debney, Smith & Wesson (SWHC) president and chief executive officer, during a June conference call with investors.
Obama’s support for a ban on some types of rifles worries gun enthusiasts about what a second term will bring, said Christopher Galosi, 44, who sells guns in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the state’s most populous city.
Galosi conducted door-to-door surveys for the NRA, asking if Obama supports Second Amendment rights. He’s distributed “Defeat Obama” yard signs.
Voters are concerned Obama would “push through the assault ban like he pushed through health care,” Galosi said.
The NRA and its political committees have spent a combined $10.7 million on the presidential campaign through yesterday, according to Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. That total is the 10th-most among groups not affiliated with either candidate and only about $2.07 million less than Washington-based Service Employees International Union.
From Oct. 12 through yesterday, the NRA spent $3 million on production and airing of TV ads, $1.7 million on Internet advertising, $1.5 million on mailers, $540,000 on radio ads, $60,500 on phone banks and $790 on booth rentals at gun shows, Center for Responsive Politics data show.
The NRA has statewide “campaign field representatives” in most of the states that strategists from both presidential campaigns view as competitive, including two each in Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to its website.
In North Carolina, the NRA plans to contact between 750,000 and 1 million voters with phone calls, mailers or personal contacts, spokesman Andrew Arulanandam was quoted as saying in the Charlotte News & Observer. Arulanandam did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
In Colorado, comedian Jeff Foxworthy hosted a grassroots event this month for the NRA in Colorado Springs, according to an invitation posted on Facebook by the group’s Institute for Legislative Action.
Foxworthy stood on a truck at the Romney campaign office and joked with dozens of sportsmen, many decked out in orange hats and hunting gear. He pointed to a pair of 5-4 rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a KKTV-TV report of the event.
In 2008, the court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects individual rights to own guns. In 2010, the court, with the same five justices in the majority, ruled that the amendment limits gun control laws by states and cities as well as the federal government.
“We’re a heart attack away from losing our right to bear arms,” Foxworthy said.
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