How the NRA won

Joe Gandelman

Most Americans support tougher gun control measures. Too bad the gun lobby has so many politicians in its pocket

There's no denying it: The National Rifle Association has won — again. Even though more than 3,000 Americans have died via gun violence since 20 children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, the NRA has somehow managed to triumph. The victims' families and gun-control advocates have lost. Forget an assault weapons ban — or any other serious gun regulation. It's not happening. 

The Washington Post notes that not only have the NRA's tactics cowed politicians and beaten back substantive national gun-control efforts, but in some instances, they've actually led to moves to make guns easier to get. Meanwhile, at least a dozen GOP senators have signed on to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's call to filibuster any gun-control measure.

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This is just one more issue where polls show Republicans at odds with mainstream America. A Morning Joe/Marist poll found six in 10 respondents — including 83 percent of Democrats, 43 percent of gun owners, and 37 percent of Republicans — believe that the laws covering gun sales should be stricter.

Here's the problem: The NRA has a lot of money, and NRA donations go overwhelmingly to Republicans. They are unsurprisingly blocking tougher gun control.

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Writes The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky: "I have never seen a situation in which a Congress, terrified of a particular lobby, has behaved in such open contempt of American public opinion as it's doing now on guns." 

The brutal truth is that the 20 little kids who perished in Newtown, Conn., in a terrifying massacre involving 154 rounds fired in 5 minutes were NOT enough to significantly move the dial on gun control. These kids are now (more) collateral damage in the decades-long political gun-control ballet involving lobbying money and the way American politics truly functions. Poll numbers alone won't enact change.

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Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein writes: "See, the problem here is equating '90 percent in the polls'" — polls show that nine in 10 Americans support universal background checks — "with 'calling for change.' Sure, 90 percent of citizens or registered voters... will answer in the affirmative if they're asked about this policy. But that's not all the same as 'calling for change.'... Action works. 'Public opinion' is barely real.... At best, public opinion as such is passive. And in politics, passive doesn't get results."

We know the pattern: (1) a massacre; (2) initial shock, media saturation, and noble-sounding rhetoric from politicians about change; (3) statements of regret or lawyerly type statements with loopholes from the gun lobby; (4) mobilization of the NRA and ideological echo chambers to go on the attack and wield political clout. 

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I was one of many staffers on The San Diego Union who covered James Huberty's July 18, 1984, San Ysidro McDonald's massacre. Huberty fired 250 rounds and killed 21 people from 8 months to 74 years old. He wounded 19 more before being shot dead by a sniper. There was outrage in the immediate aftermath. Then reform efforts failed.

For real gun control to triumph, it must get through a huge maze of institutional, political, and ideological media obstacle courses. 

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Gun control advocate Matt Bennett told The Washington Post that if there was a secret ballot on gun control it would "pass overwhelmingly, because from a substantive point of view most of these senators understand that this is the right thing to do." Politics holds them back.

President Obama recently expressed dismay over these sad truths, and reminded America about the first-graders butchered in Newtown: "The entire country was shocked, and the entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different," he declared. "Shame on us if we've forgotten. I haven't forgotten those kids. Shame on us if we've forgotten."

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Shame on us, indeed. Because in American power politics — as the long battle for gun control stymied by big money, cowardice, and lack of organized-for-action public outrage shows — there is no change. Just more and more cases of collateral damage. 

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