Congratulations, National Rifle Association. Once again, you flexed your unparalleled political muscle and managed the rare political feat of defeating a proposal supported by 90 percent of the American people. Are you familiar with the concept of a Pyrrhic victory? It's the kind that comes with an unsustainable cost. It's the kind you just scored.
What's the cost? There are three critical losses rolled into yesterday's NRA win. For one thing, as I noted Tuesday, this round of the fight over guns has produced a new infrastructure opposing the gun lobby. Neither Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by my old friend Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, nor Mayors Against Illegal Guns are likely to go away any time soon.
If you doubt it, read Gabby's heart-wrenching op-ed in today's New York Times. "Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities' interests ahead of the gun lobby's," she writes. And understand that the mayors group is launching a new NRA-style scorecard to keep senators accountable for the votes they cast.
Don't underestimate the power of these groups having concrete, potent issues to rally around: the indelible horror of Newtown, a bipartisan proposal to help prevent the next one, and a stark example of a fanatical special interest triumphing over the overwhelming will of the American people.
The second cost to the NRA in winning this fight is opening a clear, chasm-like gap between its position and the American people's position. Poll after poll has demonstrated overwhelming support for universal background checks. The Huffington Post recently crunched the numbers and found that universal background checks are more popular than – I'm not making this up – apple pie, kittens and baseball.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that even in gun-owning households 86 percent of people support universal background checks. By opposing the proposal, the hoary National Rifle Association (and its even more radical brethren like Gun Owners of America) has created a wedge issue which smart activists and pols can use to cripple the organization. The NRA will be nothing once its members realize how inflexibly radicalized it has become.
And Americans for Responsible Solutions isn't the Brady campaign. The NRA is no longer in a struggle with flat out opponents of the Second Amendment. "I'm very in favor of gun rights, and so is our organization," Kelly said Tuesday, noting that he and his wife are both gun owners. "When you look at the polling data, most of the country stand with Gabby and I on this issue, that you can be pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun-rights; you can also be against gun violence and realize that there are certain things we can do to try to reduce violence in this country."
Finally, as Greg Sargent pointed out yesterday, the history of gun control is rife with setbacks followed by victories:
Congress has repeatedly been spurred by shootings to act on proposals that originated in the wake of previous shootings. It has repeatedly taken years to pass gun control legislation. The Gun Control Act of 1968 passed in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but it originated in the wake of the assassination of JFK five years earlier. The Brady Law passed in 1993, many years after the shooting of Jim Brady. Six years later still, after the 1999 Columbine massacre, the Senate passed a bill closing the loophole in the law (it failed in the House).
The NRA didn't need to make this a fight. Given that the NRA used to support them, universal background checks can't be that radical a threat to the Second Amendment. They could have read the polls and given a little ground. They could have accommodated the overwhelming will of the American people. Instead they chose the maximalist position and they scored a victory.
King Pyrrhus, who gave his name to the type of victory, is said to have commented after his signature event that "one other such would utterly undo him." I somehow doubt NRA chief Wayne LaPierre made a similar comment yesterday, but time will remind him of King Pyrrhus's lesson.