Who's Afraid of the NRA?

Photograph by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times via Redux

Sure as shootin’, the gun issue will surface once the Republicans choose a candidate and face off against President Barack Obama after Labor Day.

The National Rifle Assn. is spoiling for a fight. I know because, as an NRA member, I’m on its mailing list. “If gun owners like you and me don’t stand up to this lawless administration now, there’s no telling how far they’ll go to destroy our Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” the group’s lead lobbyist, Chris Cox, warned in a Valentine’s Day e-mail. Cox suggested I make a special contribution to forestall the destruction of the Second Amendment. Freedom, after all, is not free.

The NRA rarely communicates at less than a panicked pitch. Still, its current warnings seem especially hysterical. Obama, after all, has shown no appetite for provoking pro-gun forces. Even after the Jan. 8, 2011, massacre in Tucson, he failed to raise a finger to push new gun control laws. No matter. You can count on the Republican candidate, whoever he turns out to be, to try to energize the GOP conservative base by predicting that Obama has simply been biding his time and would use a second term to go after guns.

Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are sending signals that they, too, expect Obama to take action. In an unusual Super Bowl commercial, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City and the founder of the company that owns Bloomberg Businessweek, joined his counterpart from Boston, Thomas Menino, to urge tougher anti-gun laws on behalf of an organization they lead called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “We don’t agree on much,” Bloomberg said, “but we both support the Second Amendment and believe America must do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

The mayors’ message prompted a provocative Daily Beast post by Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, who argued that Democrats would be foolish to rile the NRA by getting anywhere near gun control. “President Obama focusing on gun control this year would only stimulate gun-related interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, and encourage them to spend even more money to turn out the vote for Republican candidates,” Winkler argued. The professor speaks with authority; he recently published a fascinating history called Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

Answering Winkler’s post, Paul Waldman, a contributing editor at the American Prospect, blogged at Think Progress that the NRA lacks the political muscle commonly attributed to it. “The NRA endorsement, so coveted by so many politicians, is almost meaningless,” Waldman writes in what he promises is the first in a series examining the NRA’s role in campaigns.

Waldman’s argument deserves attention. He says he has crunched a lot of contribution numbers. But his initial post seems less than convincing. He uses as his central example the 2010 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, in which the NRA supported the Republican victor, Pat Toomey, over Democrat Joe Sestak. The NRA spent $1.5 million on the race, Waldman reports. Since outside groups spent a total of $28 million to send Toomey to Washington, Waldman concludes that the NRA did not have that big an impact.

Huh? First of all, ask Senator Toomey whether he was thrilled or indifferent to have the NRA’s $1.5 million. Second, Waldman seems oddly uninterested in the effect that the NRA’s local affiliates played in holding rallies and getting out the vote for the Republican in a race that, as Waldman notes, Toomey won by just two points. When you win the NRA’s allegiance, you get not only its money, but its activists, who are among the most vocal and sometimes vituperative in many jurisdictions. In Pennsylvania, a big hunting state, the NRA can make the difference. As Professor Winkler wisely points out, it is not an organization to be trifled with.

(Barrett is the author of the recently published Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.)

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