The National Rifle Association held its annual convention in Reno, Nevada, in April. As usual, there were plenty of rhetorical flourishes on display. That's no surprise. The NRA has always gone heavy on the heavy breathing -- remember when one of its fundraising appeals compared federal officials to "jack-booted thugs"?
With similar sensitivity, NRA delegates in Reno feasted on the kind of imaginative hyperbole that always marks their conventions. They booed the mention of war hero John McCain (they don't like the Arizona senator's leadership on campaign finance reform, or his support for closing the gun show loophole). According to the Associated Press, Craig Sandler, NRA director of general operations, attacked the Million Mom March: "What does the Million Mom March know or do about gun safety?" (The March, of course, included many moms whose families suffered from gun violence). Conventioneers listened as NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre compared gun-control supporters to political terrorists. And they cheered Sen. Zell Miller's unintentionally illuminating statement, "I've got more guns than I need, but not as many as I want." (How many audience members recalled that Miller gave a keynote address at the 1992 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden for Bill Clinton, the man the NRA loves to hate?)
Cute stuff. At least no one talked about lynching Al Gore, like NRA President and celebrity gun booster Charlton Heston did back in October 2000.
Still, the tone of the Reno convention projected the upbeat, tough-talking spin the NRA likes to display, and even more so after the Supreme Court selected George W. Bush for the White House in December 2000. They've been riding high ever since. Defeated pro-gun Sen. John Ashcroft was installed as Attorney General. Conservative Democrats then persuaded their colleagues to put gun-control issues on the back burner. In 2001, Fortune magazine named the NRA the number one lobbying organization in America. And since 9/11, the group has claimed, without much proof but with lots of coverage, that gun-license applications were skyrocketing.
You would think -- and the political class apparently does -- that the NRA dominated the 2000 elections. That's certainly the NRA's preferred spin. As NRA lobbyist James Jay Baker declared in Reno: "No other group could have done what we did collectively in 2000, and now it's time to finish the job."
But the NRA, like the Wizard of Oz, doesn't want us looking behind the curtain of bluster and bravado. Take a look at the 2000 elections and what do you see? At every level, from the Bush/Gore contest down through U.S. Senate campaigns, U.S. House races, gubernatorial races, and even ballot initiatives, NRA-supported candidates won fewer votes than those supported by the less-experienced, less-well-financed gun-control movement. In his remarks in Reno, NRA lobbyist Baker also said, "The Senate is the hole in our armor.... The Senate is our battleground."
What Baker meant to say is true -- NRA friends still run the U.S. House and now the White House, but not the Senate, and they aim to get it. But Baker's comment also unintentionally affirms the NRA's weakness as it begs a question, one the gun lobby hopes we overlook: Why is the Senate the hole in its armor? The answer is: Because the 2000 Senate elections were a fiasco for the NRA.
Five of the seven largest independent expenditures made by the NRA in the 2000 Senate elections were for candidates who lost. Those losers were among the NRA's best buddies: John Ashcroft, Rod Grams, Spencer Abraham, Slade Gorton, and Bill McCollum. Indeed, John Ashcroft is now busy as U.S. Attorney General, shielding suspected terrorists from scrutiny of their firearms purchases, precisely because he was defeated by a deceased Mel Carnahan, who had gone head-to-head with Ashcroft over an NRA-backed ballot initiative on guns in 1999 in Missouri. The initiative -- and Ashcroft -- lost even in Missouri, a state that defines "heartland," even though the NRA massively outspent its opponents.
The U.S. Senate wasn't the only place where the NRA had a tough time in 2000. In U.S. House races, seven of the nine largest independent expenditures by the NRA were for candidates who lost. Six of the seven gubernatorial candidates endorsed by the NRA lost in 2000, too.
Even at the presidential level, while both Al Gore and George Bush mostly ducked gun issues, Gore won half-a-million more votes overall than NRA-favorite Bush. (It's worth noting that George W. Bush did not attend the Reno confab, even though he was traveling nearby in California at the time.)
Only Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' remedial vote-counting skills, the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, and the machinations of the Scalia Supreme Five prevented vastly outspent gun-control groups from winning a virtual electoral sweep, top-to-bottom, over the NRA in 2000.
Voters in Colorado and Oregon had a direct say on gun-control issues in 2000. They faced ballot questions that were designed to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows sellers and buyers of weapons to avoid the federal background check if the transactions occur at a gun show. The voters spoke decisively -- they rejected the NRA's position and approved both measures by large margins.
The NRA's electoral weakness continued in 2001, when even the more conservative candidates for mayor of New York City and Los Angeles strongly supported gun-safety measures. Meanwhile in New Jersey, Jim McGreevey won his gubernatorial contest, all along the way attacking his NRA-supported opponent on the gun issue.
The NRA spins the 2001 elections by pointing to Mark Warner, the successful candidate for governor in Virginia, who has indeed betrayed his earlier convictions on gun control. What the NRA wants everyone to forget, however, is its own support for Warner's opponent, Mark Earley. Just for the record, here is what the NRA said in letters to its members: "We believe the differences between the candidates are substantial and that Mark Earley is the best candidate for NRA members in Virginia."
The NRA has a tactical problem that it hopes Democratic Party leaders will not fully grasp (so far, this tactic is working). The NRA in recent years has moved, in the words of the Violence Policy Center, "from the gun war to the culture war." As VPC puts it: "...the NRA has expanded from its pro-gun roots into a defender of the conservative values which [Charlton] Heston describes as a 'cultural war.' In doing so, the NRA has become the dominant lobby for both the right-wing of the conservative movement and, therefore, the Republican Party."
Last year, in an effort to understand NRA spending habits, the Campaign for a Progressive Future researched NRA expenditures during the 2000 election cycle. We discovered the following:
- NRA members ran 52 get-out-the-vote phone banks -- all on behalf of Republican candidates.
- The NRA did not endorse a single Democratic candidate in a competitive House or Senate race.
- By a ratio of 317-to-1, the NRA spent its independent expenditure money on Republicans in 2000.
- The NRA also made huge soft money donations to the national Republican Party apparatus (perhaps that's why the NRA is so hostile to Sen. John McCain's campaign finance reforms).
In short, the NRA in 2000 was just another Republican special interest group; indeed, among the GOP's biggest, loudest, wealthiest, and meanest special interest groups.
So the NRA plays the Wizard of Oz: pretending it's not a subsidiary of the GOP, and hoping that its power boast will obscure both the truth of its weak electoral showings and another little problem it faces -- the future.
By far the NRA's best support group has been rural white men, especially those who grew up hunting. These are the supposed victims of the "culture war" that so fixates Charlton Heston. This is also a shrinking demographic group, both in the general population and at the voting booth.
Meanwhile, as the 2000 elections also made clear, the national Democratic Party has made gains among suburban voters, a steadily growing demographic group. Suburban women, in particular, are very strong supporters of gun control. Latino voters are, too, and they are the fastest-growing group in the country.
In politics, as the saying goes, you hunt where the ducks are. The ducks on the NRA's pond are getting scarcer. Maybe they've been scared away by all those handguns and assault rifles.
Steve Cobble is director of the Campaign for a Progressive Future.