The National Rifle Association used the threat of an election-year backlash to tamp down U.S. Senate support for expanded background checks on gun sales -- even though the lobbying group lost almost every race it spent money on during the 2012 campaign.
The NRA’s power to sway federal lawmakers stems from its ability to motivate what it says are 4.5 million members to go to the polls, Democratic and Republican strategists said. So far gun-control groups haven’t proved an equal counterweight.
“I’m sure the NRA is popping champagne corks,” Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said as he walked off the Senate floor yesterday. Harkin voted for the background-check measure, which failed to reach the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Voting to support the proposal were 54 senators, while 46 opposed it.
President Barack Obama blamed the demise of a compromise version of his gun legislation package on the NRA and similar groups and said advocates of change need to be “as passionate and as organized and as vocal” as they are.
“The real impact is going to have to come from the voters,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden after the vote as victims of gun violence stood by his side. “You need to let your representative in Congress know that you are disappointed, and if they don’t act this time, you will remember come election time.”
The NRA had announced on April 10 that senators’ votes on the gun bill and its amendments would be included in its legislative scorecard that measures, on an “A” to “F” scale, lawmakers’ support for the group’s agenda. “If the NRA didn’t score this, we’d have had 15 more votes,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and co-sponsor of the background-check amendment, said today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
The outcome of the four-month debate over gun control illustrates the imbalance between the experienced NRA and the pro-control organizations emerging in recent years that have yet to match its messaging and grassroots mobilizing.
Former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was injured in a shooting in Tucson in 2011, appealed to supporters of her gun-control political committee after the vote. If the Senate won’t vote for new gun laws, she said in the e-mail, “then we need to change the members of the Senate.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, made a similar pledge today at a news conference at Rockefeller University in Manhattan. The mayor, 71 and a billionaire, is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“You voted to have people out there who are mentally ill and criminals, who’ve proven they’re bad people, to have guns on the streets,” he said to the senators who opposed the bill. “The next time you run for office, I’m going to be working for the other side.”
Yet to make inroads, challenges facing gun-control advocates include piercing the NRA’s intimidating reputation for beating elected officials who stray on the gun control issue.
Vice President Joe Biden, who presided over the vote on background checks, said earlier yesterday during an online chat that one member of Congress he had met with spoke forthrightly about why he would vote against a plan that polls show is supported by as much as 90 percent of the public.
“The 10 percent who don’t agree, they’re going to show up, and the 90 percent who think it’s a good idea, they’re not going to vote for me or against me because of how I vote on this,” Biden said the member told him.
Biden advised those watching the chat: “You gotta say, ’This means the most to me.’”
Biden’s Capitol Hill conversation reflects what political scientists and congressional analysts have been saying: Gun owners are far more likely to be single-issue voters than gun-control advocates.
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote March 28 on his website, “A Plain Blog About Politics,” that the “problem here is equating ’90 percent in the polls’ with ’calling for change.’”
The NRA has at its disposal a passionate base of supporters, which it stokes with angry and sometimes exaggerated rhetoric about gun measures.
Obama said yesterday that the gun lobby “willfully lied” about the background-check measure, telling its members it would start a gun registry. The legislation included a provision specifically banning such a roster of gun owners. PolitiFact, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based group that fact-checks political ads, labeled the NRA assertion a “pants on fire” false statement.
“NRA members are what people in the activism world call champions,” said Blain Rethmeier, a Republican strategist and former press secretary on Capitol Hill. “They are more than supporters. They are willing to take action and see to it that you don’t get re-elected. The senators know this.”
Senator John Boozman, a NRA “A-rated” Republican from Arkansas, said he received “lots of mail” from constituents on the gun-regulation legislation, “probably as much mail as I’ve received on any issue.”
Boozman said the sentiment is split “probably 80-20” percent opposed to more restrictions on gun purchases. “They are just very concerned in this climate that somebody is going to confiscate their guns,” he said in an interview. He voted against the background-check expansion.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he has listened to “very passionate views on the issue. People feel strongly, they communicate.”
Rated “B-plus” by the NRA, McCain voted in favor of the background-check measure.
“I understand that will affect my rating with the NRA,” he said.
Chris Cox, a spokesman for the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA, said the expanded background checks “will not reduce violent crime.” The group, he said in a statement, will keep working with both parties on measures that help prosecute “violent criminals.”
The NRA’s win on background checks comes after its losses last November, when the group spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to oust Obama and made a combined $4 million in investments in Senate races in Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political spending. All of the NRA-backed candidates in those Senate races lost.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat with an “F” rating from the NRA, was one of the targeted candidates who overcame the gun lobby’s opposition to win his seat last year. He wrote in an April 9, 2013, opinion column in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper that “the power of the organization’s leadership is vastly overrated.”
Just 5.2 percent of the $18 million the NRA spent on campaigns last year helped their preferred candidate win, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Is the NRA as politically powerful as it used to be?” asked Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former Senate aide. “If you look at the Senate this afternoon, the answer is yes. But the fact is that there are large sections of the country where it just doesn’t resonate anymore.”
A challenge for gun-control advocates is that seats up for grabs in 2014 Senate races includes several in western states where the NRA’s voice can move voters.
Four Democrats opposed the background-check legislation: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. All represent states that backed 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who beat Obama in their states by an average margin of 18 percentage points. Baucus, Begich and Pryor are up for re-election next year.
Geoffrey Garin, president of the polling firm Hart Research Associates, said yesterday that voting against gun legislation “becomes definitional, showing whether someone is in the mainstream or out of the mainstream.”
In a conference call arranged by the Democratic National Committee, Garin said continued Republican opposition to gun legislation supported by most of the public risks “degradation” of the party’s brand.
Gun-control groups and the NRA will enter the next campaign showdown with target lists provided by the Senate vote, and they have already begun spending money.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent $12 million on television ads to pressure senators on the legislation, with the money coming from Bloomberg. Through his super-political action committee, Independence USA, he also has spent more than $10 million in federal elections this year and last, much of it aimed at defeating NRA-backed candidates.
In another echo of the NRA, the mayors’ group announced that it, too, would rate members of Congress on their gun votes and publicize that information come election time.
Organizing for Action, a nonprofit formed from remnants of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, plans to hold events in the states of senators it sees as “key” to expanding background checks. This could include the Democratic senators who voted against the legislation.
“The gun lobby’s power overall is receding, as shown by the last election,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who overcame $100,000 in NRA attack ads in his 2010 election. “The special interests like the NRA have long held a stranglehold, but we’re determined to break it.”
Reaching a majority of the Senate to favor expanded background checks -- as well as last week achieving the 60 votes needed to even consider the gun bill, S. 649 -- showed that the gun lobby’s power is waning, Blumenthal said.
“Just 4 1/2 months ago, this topic was politically untouchable,” he said in an interview. “About 10 days ago, 60 votes was completely unreachable. We reached 60 votes last week to continue the debate, and I think we can turn the tide on this one.”