The NRA Aims at Lugar, Hits Supreme Court

Photograph by Tom Williams/Roll Call

The National Rifle Association has won so many impressive political victories in recent years–encouraging states to loosen laws on carrying firearms and discouraging Congress from passing any new form of gun control–the group has had to stake out increasingly extreme positions just to find something to keep its constituents fired up. The latest illustration: the NRA’s online, television, and radio campaign to defeat Indiana’s senior Republican senator, Richard Lugar.

“Some things shouldn’t change,” the NRA says in the online version of the ad. “Like our Indiana heritage and values. Our pride in conservation and stewardship of the land. And the protection of our Second Amendment and hunting rights….But over his 36 years in Washington, Dick Lugar HAS changed…away from our shared values.”

Decorated with a photo of Lugar looking respectfully at Barack Obama, the ad notes that MSNBC has called the Hoosier lawmaker the president’s “favorite Republican.” The narrator of the television spot notes that Lugar has “become the only Republican candidate in Indiana with an ‘F’ rating from the NRA.” The gun-rights group recommends Lugar’s primary opponent, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a favorite of Tea Party activists.

The 12 sins the NRA attributes to Lugar include his votes to support the Brady background check for gun sales by federally registered dealers and a requirement that gun manufacturers ship firearms with trigger locks intended to prevent misuse by children. Topping the list, though, is the fact that Lugar ”voted to confirm both Elena Kagan, and Sonya Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, one of only four Republican Senators to vote for both.”

This focus on Obama’s high court choices merits attention. It signals that conservative activists have decided to make the judiciary a centerpiece of their assault on Obama in the fall. This may seem odd coming from the NRA, since gun rights activists have gotten everything they want from the justices in two recent rulings that clarified a potent interpretation of the Second Amendment and struck down municipal handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Unlike his feisty criticism of the high court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision, which eviscerated campaign spending rules, and his tough statement about the health reform challenge now pending before the justices, Obama has indicated no desire to second-guess the Supremes on the Second Amendment. More broadly, he has steered clear of the gun issue, enraging the liberal gun-control lobby.

Obama’s passivity on guns won’t deter the NRA from going after him in the fall. The association’s surprising primary intervention against Lugar shows that the Supreme Court will be one means of attacking Obama. Another rhetorical gambit to look for: Obama played possum on gun control during his first term as a way to lull gun owners into complacency. In a second term, the argument will go, Obama will reveal his true colors and lead an offensive to restrict firearm ownership. It’s not clear how the president will counter the argument that his inaction suggests a conspiracy to take action.

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