Months before the massacre in Newtown, Conn., put the National Rifle Association on the defensive, the powerful gun rights group faced an unexpected problem. One of its most loyal Democratic friends in Congress was leading a rebellion against an NRA effort to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, a cause viewed by Democrats as a political sideshow that had nothing to do with gun rights.
“This, my friends, is not a position I relish,”Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.) wrote in an anguished letter urging fellow gun lovers to reject the NRA’s position.
Dingell’s rare show of defiance was seen by his colleagues as part of a growing estrangement between the NRA and its Democratic allies, who have provided vital support in the past and could be important again next year in what appears to be a coming showdown over gun rights. With public pressure building on Congress to act, the NRA will need Democratic votes to block or weaken legislation, particularly in the Senate.
While the NRA devoted most of its national campaign efforts this year to supporting Republicans and opposing President Obama, the group has historically gained its clout in Washington by nurturing close ties to lawmakers in both parties, particularly those from rural areas who have counted on the NRA’s blessing to get elected.
But several recent factors have altered that calculus. And, with the horror of the Newtown school shootings forcing gun control back onto the national agenda, a decline in the NRA’s traditional bipartisan strength provides gun-control advocates with what they see as their best prospects in nearly two decades.
For one, many rural Democrats lost their seats in the past two congressional elections. Political battlegrounds have also shifted away from those rural areas to the suburbs, where the NRA holds less sway and there is more appetite for restrictions on guns. And Democrats are looking increasingly at the NRA as an arm of the Republican Party, pointing specifically to the Holder contempt vote this year and the group’s 2009 opposition to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as key turning points.
“I worry the NRA has become a captive of the Republican Party at a time that it needs Democratic votes,” said Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.), who has had a top rating from the NRA but joined Dingell in opposing the censure of Holder. “In the long run it will be weakened.”
Aside from the group’s problem with Democrats, it faces a threat to its immense money advantage from billionaire New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who has started to back candidates who are taking on NRA allies.
Nevertheless, the NRA remains one of Washington’s most feared lobbies, with an annual budget of more than $200 million and the ability to reach millions of people through mail, magazines, broadcasts and a Web-based alert system. Its extensive political scorecards are closely watched by state and federal candidates, who frequently boast in their campaigns if they earn an “A” rating with the group. Democrats, in a strategy designed by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), retook the House in 2006 in part by recruiting pro-gun centrists to run in conservative districts.
The Fairfax County-based organization, founded in the 19th century to promote marksmanship, expanded after the assassinations of the 1960s and now claims 4 million members. It is the face of the gun rights movement, pushing its agenda in courts, city council chambers and state capitals in addition to Congress.
It has an iconic image, tapping movie star Charlton Heston as its leader in the late 1990s, and has had an eclectic roster on its board, including actor Tom Selleck, basketball star Karl Malone and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The most prominent NRA spokesman now is its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, who warned a conservative audience this year that if Obama won reelection, “America as we know it will be on its way to being lost forever.” He also described the president’s lack of action on gun control in his first term as a “massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.”
The NRA’s continued clout could be seen Wednesday, when one of its Democratic friends, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, toned down comments he made earlier in the week expressing openness to a new assault-weapons ban. Citing a statement Tuesday by the NRA on the Newtown shootings in which the group said it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions” to the debate, Manchin told a West Virginia radio host that he was “so proud of the NRA and so pleased that they have agreed to be a part of this.” He said: “I’m not supporting a ban on anything. I’m supporting a conversation on everything.”