Monday, May 16, 2016

How the NRA has gone from promoting gun safety to being the biggest lobby in Washington, D.C.

The National Rifle Association has transformed itself over the past 150 years from a group promoting marksmanship and safety to being arguably the most powerful interest group in Washington, D.C., Andrew Wolfson reports for The Courier-Journal in advance of the NRA's annual meeting May 19-22 in Louisville. "With an operating budget of more than $300 million, it spent $28 million supporting and opposing candidates in the last federal election cycle and $3.6 million on 35 lobbyists last year. But 151 organizations spent more on lobbying—the American Medical Association alone spent seven times as much. And the NRA’s enemies and champions alike say its power derives more from its grass-roots support than from money."

The NRA's strength is their ability to sway voters, Wolfson writes. "In 2014 alone, the NRA spent $61 million on 'member communications,' according to its tax report, including to spread the word about the 'report cards' its Political Victory Fund compiles in every state and federal race. Richard Feldman, who worked for the NRA in the 1980s, said one of the keys to the NRA’s clout "is that it has wisely shaped the fight as a symbolic battle over freedom and liberty, after conducting tests more than 30 years ago that showed gun owners associated them with those terms."

"The result: In the three years since a heavily armed gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people—20 of them children—Congress has passed a single piece of gun control legislation—a bill to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms that could bypass security checkpoints and be snuck on airplanes," Wolfson writes. "The NRA helped defeat a bill to extend a ban on assault weapons. It blocked a bill that would have extended background checks to gun shows despite the fact that even 79 percent of Republican voters supported it, according to a Pew Research Center poll last summer. The NRA even slipped into the language of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, restricting what doctors can ask patients about firearms in their homes." (C-J graphic)
"The NRA has been even more effective in statehouses across the U.S., pushing through 'stand-your-ground laws' in 23 states that removed the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and legislation in 42 states to allow residents to carry concealed firearms with a permit,' Wolfson writes. "The other eight allow that without a permit. But the NRA’s biggest victory came at the Supreme Court in 2008, when by a 5-4 vote the court struck down a District of Columbia law that had banned handguns from the home. The decision marked the first time the high court ever found that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms in self-defense. And it marked the culmination of decades of work by the NRA to redefine the amendment as a personal right—rather than one intended to maintain a 'well-regulated militia,' as the preface to the amendment says."

The NRA has been successful at the state level, in places like Kentucky, "where 81 out of 100 House members and 32 out of 38 senators earned marks of A or A+ when they were graded during their most recent elections," Wolfson writes. In Kentucky, "over the past three decades, with the NRA’s support and little opposition, the General Assembly has stripped the power of cities to enact gun control ordinances, knocking existing ones off the books," Wolfson writes. "The legislature has given motorists and homeowners the right to stand their ground and shoot first, without retreating. It has blocked police from destroying weapons confiscated from criminals to keep them from getting back on the street. It has allowed residents to carry concealed weapons, with some restrictions. Then it voted at least 12 times to loosen the regulations, including to allow concealed guns in churches."

Gun ownership is prevalent in Kentucky, "but Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said the NRA’s strength in Kentucky springs from more than the number of gun owners alone," Wolfson reports. "They have created the myth that people are out to get their guns," said Cross. "When you are dealing with a population that is prepared to believe the worst about politicians, it is a pretty easy message to sell." The Institute publishes The Rural Blog.

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