An End to the NRA's Angry Swagger

Polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans, and even of NRA members, favor universal background checks.

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When the National Rifle Association gathered in Houston last weekend for its annual confab, the theme was "Stand and Fight." The rhetoric ranged from truculent ("Let them be damned," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said of the group's adversaries) to weird (Glenn Beck adopting the mantel of Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King for the gun movement). This is what passed for moderation: The group asked a vendor to stop displaying a target-range dummy (they "bleed when you shoot them" the manufacturer advertises) bearing an unmistakable resemblance to a zombie-fied President Obama; the target was still for sale, mind you, just not on display.

The group welcomed a new president, Alabama attorney James Porter who declared the struggle over guns part of a broader "culture war." And that was tame for Porter, who has called Barack Obama a "fake" president, Attorney General Eric Holder "rabidly un-American" and the Civil War "the war of Northern aggression," while proclaiming the need for universal arms training so that citizens can resist "tyranny." That's the NRA's public face months after Sandy Hook.

As recently as 1999 – after Columbine – the NRA deployed the slogan "be reasonable," while supporting universal background checks. But the group and its allies have dropped "reasonable" from their lexicon, assuming a belligerent, swaggering posture while stopping a bill last month to institute … universal background checks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

It was a big week all around for the weapons movement. The world's first printable, plastic gun was unveiled, holding the promise of every household potentially becoming its own arms manufacturer (the schematics were downloaded 50,000 times on the first alone day but by week's end the blueprints had been taken offline by order of the State Department). Meanwhile a self-described "revolution czar" named Adam Kokesh announced he would lead a group of gun activists with loaded rifles on a July 4 march from Virginia into Washington, D.C. (where guns are generally illegal). "This will be a nonviolent event, unless the government chooses to make it violent," he wrote. It would be the cheapest sort of political intimidation but for the possibility of it being the most costly sort.

Gun fanatics seem to fancy themselves as enjoying the kind of political invulnerability that comes from being in synch with an overwhelming majority of the public. They are way off the mark.

It's true that since the 1994 elections the NRA has possessed (and cultivated) such a reputation. But that was then. The group dropped more than $11 million in the 2012 elections, yet only 0.83 percent was spent on races where it got its desired outcome, according to the Sunlight Foundation. And while gun safety advocates mounted relatively little resistance in recent years (the NRA spent 73 times more on lobbying in the 112th Congress than the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and more than 3,000 times as much on the 2012 elections, notes Sunlight), a new anti-NRA infrastructure has developed. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, raised $11 million in it first four months of existence, while Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been running television ads against key senators who helped kill the background check bill.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Support Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases?]

The NRA has also eased its opponents' task by taking uncompromising positions (the group voted unanimously last weekend to oppose "any and all new restrictions" on gun ownership). Polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans, and even of NRA members, favor universal background checks. NRA extremism is creating an exploitable common-sense gap. Giffords and her husband, for example, aren't talking about handgun bans or (as people like LaPierre fantasize) confiscation – they're gun owners and Second Amendment supporters themselves.