Last summer I wrote in the July 23, 2003, issue of the Los Angeles Times that the GOP's overreliance on the National Rifle Association is a risky strategy that might pay off at election time unless the leaders in the Democratic Party "wise up -- and quickly."
As a former NRA executive and top lobbyist for the firearms industry, I knew the NRA could not be trusted when it promised it would go easy on vulnerable Democrats come election time if they would just support lawsuit immunity for the gun industry -- the gun lobby's top priority in Congress.
As it turned out, in April of this year, Senate Democrats and several moderate Republicans banded together to stop the gun lobby's immunity legislation by amending it with measures to renew the federal ban on military-style assault weapons and require criminal background checks on all gun sales at gun shows. This revolt by the Senate stunned the NRA. The immunity bill with the assault weapon ban and gun show provisions attached went down in flames 92 to 8.
Today, we find President Bush facing a slightly different dilemma. The 1994 ban on military-style assault weapons is set to expire in September, at the height of the presidential election campaign. That means Uzis, AK-47s and Tech -9s will be back on U.S. streets unless Congress acts to renew the law. The president has stated publicly he supports the renewal of the ban despite the fact that a handful of ultra-conservative leaders in the House of Representatives are holding fast to their promise to the NRA and are refusing to allow a vote on the controversial measure.
The Senate vote in April shows lawmakers are catching on to the gun lobby's emperor-has-no-clothes vulnerability. Democrats and moderate Republicans are beginning to understand that the gun lobby, led by the NRA, does not really represent the views of mainstream U.S. gun owners.
I can tell you firsthand that the power of the gun lobby is more perception than reality. After all, there are 80 million gun owners in America; only 4 million are NRA members. And many of these join only to get the gun magazines or insurance. They believe in the Second Amendment but understand that an AK-47 isn't a hunting rifle.
Even more interesting is the fact that the NRA doesn't speak for even its most diehard members. NRA leaders such as Wayne LaPierre and Kayne Robinson are pragmatists. Others, such as NRA board member and former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, are pure right-wing partisans who care more about electing Republicans than protecting gun rights.
The tension between pragmatic NRA leaders and the minuscule number of diehard right-wing board members played itself out in the debate over the immunity bill. According to insiders, LaPierre was willing to accept a renewed assault weapons ban in exchange for passage of gun industry immunity. But when the far-right factions of the NRA found out, Wayne's world came crashing down. The NRA was forced to issue a statement denying any deal and ultimately had to oppose final passage of the immunity bill with the assault weapons ban and gun show amendments attached.
Now, because the assault weapon issue is front and center, tensions are boiling over within the NRA in a more public way. Diehard pro-gun advocates tend to be more libertarian than conservative, and many are organizing against Bush because of his position on assault weapons -- much to the dismay of LaPierre and other pragmatic NRA leaders. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has advised that if the president were to publicly call on Congress to pass the assault weapon renewal bill, it would happen. The NRA board of directors knows this and recently sent a ham-fisted message to Bush: no NRA presidential endorsement until after the assault weapons law expires in September. Bush knows that no recent Republican candidate for president has been elected without the NRA endorsement.
Given this dynamic, my advice to Bush is: Stop dancing with the devil. Leaders in the Senate did. They knew the correct course of action to take. The gun lobby doesn't have the power to protect you if you let new American-made Uzis, AK-47s and Tech-9s flood America's streets. Voters won't buy a "blame Congress" excuse. They'll blame you.
Giving in to the gun lobby on this one will alienate millions of Americans -- sportsmen and non-gun owners alike -- who understand and support the public safety value of renewing the ban on military-style assault weapons.
Robert Ricker will be the keynote speaker June 15 at Town Hall, Seattle at an event hosted by Washington CeaseFire.
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