Last month, voters across the country took a cue from the late Charlton Heston and pried the assault weapon from the NRA’s cold, dead hands.
Although the gun group unleashed everything in its arsenal to defeat Barack Obama and dozens of down ticket gun-control candidates, it lost by a margin as historic as the war chest it opened in an attempt to convince voters that Democrats were mortal enemies of the Second Amendment. Despite expending nearly $7 million in a national fear campaign, NRA-endorsed candidates lost 80 percent of their races against gun-control candidates. More than 90 percent of candidates endorsed by the NRA’s nemesis, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, won their races. If 2008 was, in the NRA’s own words, “arguably the most important year in its history,” then the election results suggest that the gun group is arguably the most overhyped and impotent special-interest lobby in the country. The NRA even got its chamber cleaned in its home state of Virginia.
The sweeping victory for gun control has been one of the most underreported stories of the election. This is largely because it was immediately overshadowed by the trendy postelection narrative of spiking gun sales and runs on assault weapons. In recent weeks, it seems as if every TV news program and newspaper in the country has featured some variation on the following story: Anxious Americans are cleaning out their local gun stores in anticipation of a.) Barack Obama’s radical anti-gun agenda; b.) social chaos engendered by economic collapse; or c.) both.
No doubt thousands of paranoid gun owners have purchased Glocks and AR-15 assault rifles out of such fears. And it is true that the economic crisis has fueled an interest in personal protection and even Northern Idaho-style survivalism. But sensational stories about booming holiday-season gun sales obscure a more profound phenomenon: the coalescence of a new consensus, joined by the majority of the nation’s gun owners, in favor of what gun controllers call “commonsense reform.” A subtext of this phenomenon is the evaporation, first witnessed in 2006 and reinforced last month, of the idea that guns are a sure thing conservative wedge issue.
Nobody can accuse Obama of campaigning dishonestly on the issue of gun control. The nation’s first modern urban president repeatedly explained that his understanding of the Second Amendment included the need for restrictions aimed at reducing gun violence, especially in the cities. In a sign that he intended to win on the issue by shooting straight with voters, he even mentioned his gun-control agenda during his Denver acceptance speech, challenging the idea that gun control was a third rail that guaranteed defeat in states like Ohio and Virginia.
As codified in his urban policy platform, Obama consistently advocated for increasing law enforcement’s ability to trace guns by reinstituting tracking legislation repealed by the Bush administration; closing the famous “gun show loophole” that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks; mandating additional safety features on U.S.-manufactured guns; and resurrecting the expired ban on assault weapons and making it permanent.
Needless to say, every plank of this agenda is vigorously opposed by the NRA (spokespersons for whom did not return repeated requests for comment).
Gun control is not a front-burner issue for an incoming administration faced with economic crisis and two wars, but the NRA is right to be worried. Not only do Obama and Biden have strong gun control records, the incoming attorney general is a one-man gun control lobby unto himself. As deputy A.G. in the Clinton administration, Eric Holder advocated federal licensing requirements for handguns, a three-day waiting period on some gun sales and rationing handgun sales to no more than one per month. More recently, he signed an amicus brief in support of the District of Columbia’s handgun ban when it came before the Supreme Court. The conservative site newsmax.com calls Holder a “gun control nightmare.”
The NRA is going to have a hard time persuading America that it should awake from this nightmare. Not only do majorities support these strictures, the gun lobby recently lost one of its most effective arguments. When the Supreme Court decided in June in favor of individual gun rights in District of Colombia v. Heller, it settled the nagging question about whether the Constitution protected the right of an individual to own a gun, or whether that right only existed in the context of public militias. While in one sense Heller was a major victory for the gun lobby, it also deprived it of the legal ambiguity that allowed it to bludgeon gun owners with the idea that any gun-control law would inevitably lead to ATF SWAT teams — or, in the case of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, U.N. blue helmets — taking away all of their guns. Crucially, the decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, stated that “[l]ike most rights, the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
“Heller legally established the middle ground that we have long advocated,” says Daniel R. Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It basically said the government could regulate guns in public while guaranteeing the right to private ownership. It obliterates the NRA’s ‘slippery slope’ argument that any gun law [could someday] lead to the government taking away your guns.”
There is more bad news for the post-Charlton Heston NRA. Along with losing its scariest tactic and the aura of being able to swing elections (and thus scare Democrats away from championing gun control), it is also being challenged on its long-held assumption that it and it alone speaks for America’s gun owners and hunters. A couple of years ago, the American Hunters and Sharpshooters Association was launched by Ray Schoenke, a pro-gun-control hunter, sportsman and liberal Democrat, to create an alternative home for those who support the Second Amendment as well as gun control. Along with advocating “commonsense” gun law reform, Schoenke’s group backs strong environmental-protection laws in defense of hunting and fishing lands. The contradiction between the NRA’s purported love of the outdoors lifestyle and its alliance with reactionary anti-environment politicians has long been the organization’s soft underbelly, ripe for attack. Schoenke’s group is going after it.
“I’ve been saying for years that Democrats shouldn’t cede the gun vote to the NRA,” says Schoenke. “There are over 80 million gun owners in the U.S., and fewer than 3 million belong to that group. They do not speak for all of us — especially those of us who are Democrats, progressives and conservationists.”
Not surprisingly, the NRA dismisses the AHSA as a sham left-wing project that gives cover to anti-gun politicians posing as friends of hunters. “[ASHA is nothing more than] an effort to mislead and divide the gun-owning community and to dilute gun owners’ political impact,” fumed an NRA blogger shortly before last month’s election, when AHSA’s Schoenke was touring states like Ohio and Minnesota in support of Barack Obama. “Anti-gun activists are creat[ing] new organizations with names designed to confuse gun owners and hide the real agenda.”
While the AHSA does still have the feel of a letterhead organization, it is possible that it could one day begin to rival the NRA for membership and stature among gun owners. For the NRA, the realization that not all gun owners are Second Amendment absolutists who take NRA political ratings as voting guides must be maddening. The frustration will only deepen in the coming years, as commonsense gun-control legislation is crafted and passed with public support.
Until then, the NRA will continue to believe it speaks for America’s gun owners, threatening its lobbying wrath on any politician who tries to restrict the right of Americans to buy and sell whatever guns they like, in secrecy and without a paper trail. As the new gun laws go into effect, the group can be expected to increase the pitch of its warnings about impending fascism and the dark shadow of the United Nations. The question is whether anybody will be listening.