Locked and Loaded: How the NRA Aims to Endure

Moms headed to Capitol Hill hope to outflank one of the top lobbying groups in the country.

A man displays a gun used during a round of recreational skeet shooting at a gun range in November 2007 in Virginia.

Gun control proponents are learning more than money is needed to combat gun rights groups - it's a culture war. 

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Ask National Rifle Association executives what the last year and a half has looked like for them – even after a series of horrific gun rampages dominated headlines. They’ll tick off a long list of triumphs in rapid fire: They've gained 1 million new members, more than half of all states have expanded gun rights and they helped block a federal expansion of background checks in Congress.

The net result?

Just a little more than a year after Vice President Joe Biden presided over a much ballyhooed but ultimately failed vote to expand federal background checks in the Senate, Congress has done nothing to limit access to guns or high-capacity ammunition magazines. In fact, in more than half of U.S. states, gun rights have been expanded, not limited, in the year and a half since Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

[ PHOTOS: Deadly Connecticut School Shooting]

The appetite for gun control, as it turns out, might not have been as strong as headlines screamed in the days after the elementary school tragedy.

Carlee Soto uses a phone to get information about her 27-year-old sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at the Sandy Hook Elementary School who was killed Dec. 14, 2012,  in Newtown, Conn., after gunman Adam Lanza shot 26 people to death inside the school, including 20 children.
Carlee Soto uses a phone to get information about her 27-year-old sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at the Sandy Hook Elementary School who was killed in a shooting rampage on Dec. 14, 2012.

"Kids are kids and we don't condone what happened; we are deeply hurt by it," says Mark Warner, a senior sales manager at Blue Ridge Arsenal Inc. in Chantilly, Virginia. "But when people have a passion for shooting sports and someone tells them they are going to lose those rights or access to guns, they are going to rally behind what they believe in."

At the state level, the NRA has played a pivotal part in expanding "stand your ground" laws and concealed carry legislation. In 2013, there were double the number of gun rights bills than gun control legislation, according to an analysis by PBS Frontline. In 2013, gun control groups passed 43 new measures. Gun rights advocates passed 93.

Fans hold up a sign in support of gun ownership during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas.
NASCAR fans hold up a sign in support of gun ownership on April 13, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas.  

More recently, Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed the "guns everywhere” bill that allows some gun owners to carry their firearms into churches, school zones, bars and even some federal buildings. In Idaho, Republican Gov. Butch Otter signed a law that permits individuals with enhanced concealed carry permits to bring guns onto public college campuses. The measure passed despite opposition from all eight public universities, student groups, local police and professors. In a nod to the NRA’s power, when the bill was introduced in the state legislature, news reports noted that an NRA lobbyist, not the bill’s sponsor, presented it. The controversial legislation prompted 3,000 signatures on a petition of opposition, and one enraged biology professor wrote a satirical letter to the state lawmakers, published by The New York Times and titled, “When May I Shoot a Student?”

“The NRA has been, in boxing terms, a great counterpunching organization,” says Ken Blackwell, an NRA board member.

Even in Colorado, a place where Democrats saw success, the NRA nabbed a victory. After the governor signed a bill expanding background checks and limiting the size of magazines, Democratic lawmakers who had ushered the legislation through faced an intense backlash and lost their seats in a historic recall election.

[ FLASHBACK: Gun Activists Oust 2 Colorado Lawmakers]

The reminder after Sandy Hook was not only that the NRA had influence, but that its greatest power was not in Congress or statehouses; rather in town halls, at local shooting clubs and in the homes of millions of gun owners the organization represents.

“I think it’s mainly a credit to constitutional-minded citizens who are not going to let their rights be violated by New York, East Coast liberals,” says Cleta Mitchell, an NRA board member and conservative activist. “Candidates and officeholders who want to malign law-abiding citizens do so at their electoral peril."

Knowing they could pay the ultimate electoral price, lawmakers have long pored over new gun legislation and taken cues from the NRA on what to support and what to dodge. Columbine didn’t change that. Virginia Tech didn’t change that. Even the devastation at Sandy Hook has not changed that.

“Are we stronger? Yes, but the fight is far from over,” says NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “The fight is never over. The Mike Bloombergs of the world lie and wait for the next tragedy to happen so they can exploit it.”

[ OPINION: Smart Guns, Dumb Gun Advocates]

On Capitol Hill, the NRA’s influence is infamous. Members make a choice: Fall in line or fail. Electorally, some can easily weather a bad grade from the NRA. For others who hail from more conservative states where guns are an emblem of values and a way of life, it’s tougher to survive.

Perhaps no state is more symbolic of that tension than West Virginia, where two senators have taken on very different postures with the gun lobby.

“I get an F every time I run for re-election,” says Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who actually has a D from the NRA according to the most recent records.

Rockefeller met with the NRA early in his career, but both sides saw there was nothing to be gained.

“It wasn’t worth their time, and it certainly wasn’t worth mine,” says Rockefeller.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., speaking on Capitol Hill on Aug. 3, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Rockefeller, who will retire at the end of his term, has been a fierce supporter of gun control measures despite the popularity of guns and sport shooting in his state. First elected to the Senate in 1984, Rockefeller used to represent a strongly Democratic and unionized constituency, and his stance on firearms was a small piece of the political puzzle. Thirty years later, as the state has trended more and more conservative, the NRA’s adversarial relationship with Rockefeller has grown to be a bigger problem. When asked about how people in West Virginia feel about his position on guns, Rockefeller peers over his clear, round glasses and says simply, “They don’t like it.”

The junior senator from West Virginia has tried much more carefully to straddle the line between gun owners and their lobbyists. But you won't catch Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., dissing the NRA in the halls of the Senate, even if this year he's been at odds with the group.

“I’m a member. I’m still a member, a lifetime member,” Manchin insists as he makes his way to his Democratic Caucus lunch. The outspoken and moderate Democrat embodies what he calls a "sensible gun owner" – a guy who likes to shoot but wanted to do something after Sandy Hook to further prevent the mentally ill from gaining access to guns. So he thrust himself into the cross hairs of the gun debate, making himself a target last spring by authoring what he thought was a straightforward background check bill with a fellow gun owner, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

"We need responsible, law-abiding gun owners like myself knowing this is not a threat," Manchin says. “If you don’t know a person, you should want to know about their past and if they are the type of person you would want to have a gun. That is a background check. It is not gun control."

The NRA did not see it that way. They ran an ad against him, calling on constituents to tell Manchin to "stand with West Virginia."

The bill failed more than a year ago, but Manchin's still left wondering what's next.

“How do we break through?” he asks. “I don’t know. It’s been politicized, but we got to.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., center, speaks with family members of Sandy Hook victims on June 12, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Pictured, from left, are Matthew Rousseau, Terri Rousseau, Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley and Neil Heslin.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., center, speaks with family members of Sandy Hook victims on June 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Pictured, from left, are Matthew Rousseau, Terri Rousseau, Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley and Neil Heslin.

Other lawmakers, like Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., don't even like to talk about the NRA's influence on the hill.

"I don't know. I have no comment," he says, brushing aside the question.

It's an uncomfortable topic for the new senator, who hails from a state deeply divided on the issue. Arizona has a strong culture of sport shooting, but was also the home of a mass tragedy that left then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Democrat, severely wounded. He even resisted pleas from Giffords to move the background check bill forward last year, though fellow Arizonian, Republican Sen. John McCain, voted for the bill.

"I think people vote their conscience on this issue," Flake says, still defending his vote.

In a stunning example of political intransigence, even where there was consensus, senators failed to come together. Many Republicans, for example, were opposed to expanding background checks, but wanted to use the gun debate as an opportunity to pass mental health legislation.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says that's where he still stands.

"I would hope that we could focus on the underlying problem, which for me is the mental illness piece," Cornyn says. "I haven't found anyone yet who said a mentally ill person should be able to buy a firearm."

[ ALSO: Gun Control Debate Clouds Definition of Mentally Ill]

Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, says the gun debate embodies much more than just legislative jigsaw pieces, but fundamental feelings about the proper role of government.

“There is a growing distrust of our government to do anything,” Webster says. “The gun lobby has done such a masterful job of saying what gun control means is that the government is not just taking away your guns, it's taking away your rights.”
Potential 2016 contenders who took to the mic at the NRA’s annual convention last month worked hard to sell their Second Amendment bona fides by harping on that same broad theme.

“Gun shows are secular conservative megachurches,” says Grover Norquist, an NRA board member best known for his anti-tax crusading, about the importance of the pro-gun movement’s stake in the 2016 elections. For many Republican lawmakers, the NRA conference is an important place to shore up the base.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has a lackluster B+ rating from the NRA, said owning a gun was akin to achieving the American dream. Former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum praised NRA members for fighting to preserve American rights.

“In many respects, you folks were the canary in the mine shaft [with] the assault on basic foundational freedoms in our Constitution,” Santorum said at the convention in Indianapolis. “Now we’re seeing those assaults growing and growing and growing. But you were out there first, leading the charge, fighting those battles. And now the battlefield has broadened, and we have to fight for our freedom from an oppressive government on a variety of fronts.”

Sandy Hook did change one thing, though, for gun control advocates: Groups, not yet as powerful as the NRA, are dormant no more.

President Barack Obama pauses while surrounded by Newtown families, including Neil Heslin, father of Newtown victim Jesse Lewis, left, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., during a press conference after measures to reduce gun violence failed on April 17, 2013, at the White House in Washington, D.C.
"Sooner or later, we are going to get this right," said President Barack Obama after measures to reduce gun violence failed on April 17, 2013. Pictured, from left, Neil Heslin, father of Newtown victim Jesse Lewis, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz.

In the wake of the failed background check bill – a defeat that so infuriated President Barack Obama that he took to the Rose Garden to offer an impromptu shaming of those standing in opposition – gun control advocates were forced to regroup. Looking toward other social movements for their successful strategies, they decided to tear a page from the gay rights movement’s playbook.

If they couldn't go straight to the marbled halls of Congress for change, they would retreat back to the states.

While many statehouses led by conservatives proved to be easy battlegrounds for the NRA, gun control activists predictably found favorable footing among liberal legislatures. They moved aggressively toward limiting access to guns in Democratic states like Maryland, New York and Connecticut.

“We have to rely on incremental progress,” says Shannon Watts, the spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a 150,000-mom strong organization. “You know, there are entire football games won by field goals.”

Then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, second left, watches a video testimonial surrounded by shooting survivors and victims' relatives during a news conference Dec. 17, 2012, in City Hall in New York.
Michael Bloomberg, second left, has pledged $50 million to challenge the NRA via his umbrella gun safety organization Everytown for Gun Safety.

The biggest boost has come from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has promised to invest $50 million this election cycle to counter the NRA. Bloomberg’s new group, Everytown for Gun Safety, has merged the efforts of Moms Demand Action with another leading gun control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Everytown for Gun Safety is pushing to get 1 million people to sign a petition and vote with "gun sense" in the 2014 elections, and the group is putting boots on the ground in 18 states – even in places where they haven’t always been welcomed.

In conservative, gun-proud states like Texas, members are showing up to be heard. Moms Demand Action says it has roughly 2,000 supporters in Texas, and they’ve been making things interesting for the gun lobby at the statehouse in Austin. Just days after another Fort Hood shooting left four people dead, gun control activists made news when they showed up to testify against a bill in the Texas Legislature that would allow gun owners to openly carry a handgun in public. They were largely outnumbered, but that, they argue, is how progress is made.

“We are fighting this on the cultural level,” Watts says.

The group has also won other minor cultural crusades. The moms got Starbucks to change its policies on carrying a gun inside stores and after asking Facebook to do something about firearm sales on the site, the company adopted a new policy that banned gun advertising to minors under 18.

Around the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook, the 42-year-old Watts got a call from a friend who asked her how it felt to be one year into a 30-year fight.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Watts says.

Part of Everytown’s strategy also is expanding its message beyond background checks or gun control. Watts says that this year, the group will spend a lot of time talking about domestic violence, suicide prevention and how to keep guns out of reach of children.

“All of these things touch people and it is important that we build our coalition and bring them under our tent,” Watts says.

Gun control might not be on the agenda in Congress, but that doesn't mean advocates are not pushing for it to be there. On Wednesday, Watts will lead 100 moms to "take the hill" in the second-annual pre-Mother's Day push.

Gun control advocates have settled into the slow pace of their pursuit and are bracing themselves for the longevity of the campaign. A number of advocates interviewed for this story repeated the same anecdote that they say gives them reason to be optimistic: President Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated in 1981. His press secretary was paralyzed. Yet, it took 12 years before Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.

“I am not discouraged. I am not feeling defeated in any way,” says Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, was shot and killed by Lanza.

As she spoke over the phone, Lafferty was preparing for a 350-person rally of moms, daughters and advocates who had arrived in Indianapolis to protest the NRA conference. In the last 17 months, Lafferty says she has transformed from a college admissions counselor to a tireless advocate for stiffer gun control laws. She’s sat in offices as senators coldly refused to budge from their position on guns and lobbied tirelessly in statehouses around the country.

“It’s been motivating and devastating and powerful, and at times, it has kicked me down,” Lafferty says. “But, I refuse to believe that there are people who don’t agree with saving lives.”

Lafferty is back on Capitol Hill Wednesday for the Mother’s Day push.

“I am not going to let my mom be a statistic … I am not going to turn my back on my mom,” Lafferty says.

Another gun control group is building up a different kind of coalition in the gun war. Americans for Responsible Solutions – the super PAC launched by Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly – is looking for ways to appeal to veterans and gun owners who traditionally might have been aligned with the NRA. They are also bringing in big money and making good on their promise to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes. So far, the group has received more than $15 million, which according to early campaign finance reports is slightly outpacing the gun lobby ahead of 2014 elections. The NRA-affiliated PAC has received $14.8 million.

Other gun control groups also have come to assist and helped buoy the numbers. Independence USA, Bloomberg’s super PAC, has raised more than $6 million so far.

“The gun control groups have really upped their game," says Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. ”The gun control groups are catching up in a big way."

Even so, campaign fiance reports don't show everything. Other types of campaign fundraising and spending can be kept under wraps and unleashed in the final weeks of a campaign.

The gun control groups are still not even close to the NRA when it comes to how much cash they have available to spend. The NRA's PAC has $14 million, while Americans for Responsible Solutions sits on $7.7 million. Bloomberg's group has just $150,000 in the bank.

The numbers reveal progress, however, for a political movement that in the past has been left in the dust by the gun lobby – progress made because of Sandy Hook.

Another place where the gun control movement has room to grow is on the hill. In terms of federal muscle, gun control groups combined spent $2.2 million on lobbying in 2013 while the NRA alone eclipsed them at $3.4 million.

"Certainly the gun control groups are doing their best to play in the money game, but that doesn't mean that the NRAs long track record on Capitol Hill won't make them more effective dollar for dollar," Watzman says.

The gun control movement is well aware of the political obstacles that lie before them, but that won't keep them away.

The tally is expected to remain unchanged ahead of the midterm elections, but Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has worked closely with the Sandy Hook families and helped usher them through the political hurdles on Capitol Hill, predicts that some lawmakers might start feeling the heat from gun control advocates and might be inclined to think differently about guns after the election.

"It is very important they hear from voters during this cycle so they appreciate how strong the support is. It will embolden and encourage them to vote differently," Blumenthal says.

The gun control movement's moment may be coming, but the true test will be whether they can build the kind of enduring, driven passion that the NRA has been able to stoke in gun rights activists over decades. Because it's more than money dictating gun policy in Washington these days – it's a strong chorus of Remingtons and Smith & Wessons aimed from America's heartland.