Why a Weakened NRA May Still Block Joe Biden’s Moves on Guns

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Philip Elliott
·9 min read
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Activists Rally At Colorado Capitol For Increased Gun Control Measures
Activists Rally At Colorado Capitol For Increased Gun Control Measures

People link arms at a gun reform rally at the Colorado State Capitol on March 28, 2021 in Denver, Colo. Credit - Michael Ciaglo—Getty Images

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Matthew Lacombe literally wrote the book on the NRA’s political power. Well, at least its most recent version, published last month from Princeton University Press. He also teaches an upper-level seminar at Barnard College at Columbia University on gun politics and interest groups’ power, and is probably the best political scientist at the moment on the topic in the country.

Yesterday we connected by phone to talk about President Joe Biden’s latest efforts to curb mass shootings in this country. He’s not optimistic about what Biden is introducing by way of new gun-safety restrictions. Nor am I.

What are the odds that anything actually comes of what President Biden is introducing?

I don’t think the odds are great, at least in the short term. Republicans are still strongly enough committed to gun rights and they’ll likely invoke the filibuster to prevent new gun control from being enacted. It’s also not clear whether it’s an issue that Democrats truly want to prioritize right now. Some Senators are from states that either have a lot of gun owners in them, or flip back and forth between electing Democrats and Republicans. It also might include the President, who has been a supporter of gun control throughout his career but may prefer to focus his attention and his political capital on other matters right now.

What about executive action? Is there anything meaningful to be done here?

Yes, there is.The White House will take those actions as it has started. It may take additional actions in the future, particularly if the legislative process is productive. There are two real constraints on using executive action to deal with a problem like gun violence. The first is that the scope of what can be done is rather severely limited by the fact that changes can only be made that reinterpret how to enforce existing gun laws, which means there are certain policy measures that a lot of people would like to see enacted that cannot be done that way. We’re not, for example, going to see universal background checks enacted via executive action. That would be sort of beyond the scope of a re-interpretation of existing law.

The second downside is: What one President does with the stroke of a pen, another President can undo with the stroke of a pen. Of course, legislation can be repealed. But it’s much harder to overturn, as we saw during the Trump Administration. Trump was able to overturn a lot of Obama’s executive actions, but he wasn’t able to sort of legislatively repeal something like the Affordable Care Act.

How much of this is based on the popularity of gun rights and how much of it is actually just the inertia of negative lobbying? That it’s easier to oppose something than it is to actually instigate an affirmative way, a new agenda?

To some extent, all of the above. There is a status quo bias in the U.S. lawmaking process. I mean, it’s much easier to kill legislation than it is to pass it. The NRA does have some pieces of legislation it would like to see pass, but generally speaking, it’s sort of in the business of preventing new things from happening. Well, the system is already sort of stacked in favor of that, and that is certainly a big contributing factor to all of this. Gun rights supporters are generally over-represented in Congress, both because of the nature of the Senate, which gives all states the same number of seats and tends to over-represent or rural states and because of gerrymandering in the House. On top of that, the people who support gun rights, at least historically, tend to be much more dedicated to that stance than people who support gun control.

So it’s an issue characterized by a loud minority or active minority who are really willing to take action in defense of gun rights, in a way that most gun-control supporters are unwilling to do. That imbalance in participation helps explain the inertia on the issue. Put simply, I think for a lot of politicians, gun control seems like the sort of thing that is more likely to lose them votes than to actually gain them votes. A lot of politicians don’t necessarily see this as a winning one in part based on prior experiences.

Can President Biden overcome that intensity delta by himself?

I don’t know that it’s President Biden’s job. It’s up to gun-safety advocates to push Democrats to prioritize the issue. So Democrats are now the party of gun regulation, but of course it’s up to them to choose which policy areas to prioritize.

The 2020 Democratic primary saw a whole forum on the gun-control issue with the candidates trying to outflank each other. We don’t have to go that far back in history to see Democrats avoiding the issue, trying to actually seem like they’re not so into gun-control or trying to avoid talking about it. That’s an example of the success that gun safety advocates have had in terms of pushing Democrats in that direction. I’m just not sure that there is a lot that either Democratic Leaders or gun-safety advocacy groups can do to convince 10 or more Republican Senators to go against their party on this issue.

Two years ago you wrote a piece for the LA Times about how gun-safety groups might borrow a playbook from the NRA. Have you seen any evidence that anyone read what you wrote?

I don’t have evidence of whether people engaged with that particular piece. But I do think that gun-safety advocates have adopted some pages from the NRA playbook. They’ve personalized the issue and linked it to people’s lived experiences. It’s not about statistics and figures. Instead it’s one that is seen as personally impacting people in important ways.

This is not in any way an indictment of gun-safety advocacy groups that have been on the rise in recent years. It’s more a reflection of the current reality of Congress and the Senate in particular.

Did you ever think that we’d be talking about an NRA bankruptcy case?

No, I did not see that. It’s rather shocking in a number of ways.

The NRA does have a constituency and that constituency does presumably need a home. What happens to that constituency?

You’re totally right, that the constituency that the NRA has developed still exists and will continue to exist regardless of the future of the organization itself. People talk about the NRA’s current struggles as though were the NRA to go away, so would support for gun rights. I don’t think that’s true. The worldview and constituency built around the issue will continue on. So what’s going to happen moving forward? Well, it’s difficult to say. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not an accountant, so I don’t know.

It seems unlikely that the NRA will be able to reincorporate as a nonprofit in Texas by declaring bankruptcy and side-stepping this lawsuit, but you never know. It’s unlikely that the NRA will literally be dissolved. I think it will rebound because while a lot of folks think about the NRA only in terms of its political functions, it’s also a sort of center of the U.S. firearms community more broadly.

Having said that, I do think the NRA’s place in the political system seems to be changing. You know, the NRA has for about 40 years been generally aligned with the Republican Party and the alignment began in the Reagan years. And that was a really good time for the NRA to pick a partisan team. Reagan ushered in a new era of American politics.

The NRA’s relationship with the GOP deepened over time in ways that generally enhanced the organization’s power. One thing that the NRA has done historically to fight back against legislative gun-control proposals is to engage in mass-mobilization campaigns and encourage its supporters to flood policy makers with letters and phone calls and opposition. Once you align with a political party, you might not even have to do that because that political party might have some control over the legislative agenda.

With the NRA’s close alignment with Trump, it was a sort of culmination of the NRA’s alignment with the Republicans, which is to say that it was marked by a situation where the leader of the Republican Party had adopted a worldview that closely aligned with the group’s own worldview.

So when Trump was elected, the NRA was on top of the political world. But now, Trump lost reelection. And not only did he lose reelection, he then encouraged an insurrection that failed. Many folks, even within the Republican Party, want to move in a new direction. The NRA to a certain extent has inextricably linked itself to a political worldview that may not be so popular moving forward. Its linkages into that general political worldview also leaves it poorly positioned to recruit lots of new gun owners, lots of folks who bought guns for the first time in 2020 who don’t really share the NRA’s broader outlook on politics.

Fifty years ago, those people would say, Well, I’m a new gun owner. I’d like to take classes. I’d like to have access to shooting ranges. So I’m going to join the NRA. That makes sense. Over time, they might have gradually socialized the political gun-rights community. Those folks are very unlikely to join the NRA now.

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