The NRA just had a major legal setback. But its hold on the gun-control debate endures.
By Tom Hamburger and Mike DeBonis,
Daniel Acker Bloomberg News
It’s been a rough spring for the National Rifle Association.
Last week, a federal judge in Dallas rejected the gun rights organization’s effort to declare bankruptcy, calling it an attempt to avoid legal scrutiny and citing “lingering issues of secrecy and a lack of transparency” some of which he described as “nothing less than shocking.”
The bankruptcy hearing revealed details of lavish perks enjoyed by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, who received charter flights for trips to the Bahamas with his family, use of luxury yachts and $275,000 worth of suits from the Ermenegildo Zegna boutique in Beverly Hills. New York Attorney General Letitia James has vowed to renew her efforts to dissolve the NRA altogether, saying the organization is riddled with fraud and self dealing.
Yet even at this nadir, the NRA’s profound influence on the nation’s debate over gun regulation endures.
On Capitol Hill, advocates of expanded background check legislation acknowledged in interviews last week that they face an uphill climb in their efforts to attract enough Senate votes to pass what has long been considered the most basic of gun-control measures.
Legal scholars say a Supreme Court case brought by the NRA that will be heard this year could lead to a historic expansion of the right to carry concealed firearms.
The current climate is the result of a decades-long campaign by the powerhouse lobbying group, which has spent a fortune reshaping the political and judicial landscape to promote an interpretation of the Second Amendment that enshrines far-reaching individual gun rights.
“The NRA transformed public attitudes and legal opinion,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
“An idea thought to be off the wall — that the Second Amendment protected individual gun rights — is now very much on the wall,” he said.
Under LaPierre, the gun rights organization promoted its agenda on multiple fronts, plowing millions of dollars into supporting conservative candidates, investing in academic institutions and embracing a hard-edge messaging campaign that emphasized threats to personal safety over the traditional values of hunting and conservation.
Former president Donald Trump, who received critical support in battleground states from the NRA in 2016, appointed three Supreme Court justices who are now poised to help determine the high court’s upcoming decision on concealed firearms.
While the NRA faces a serious legal challenge from the New York attorney general, “support for gun rights in America is not going to wane because of the organizational difficulties of the NRA,” Winkler said. “The gun rights movement in America is vibrant and strong.”
Legal scholars and political strategists say the NRA’s extensive lobbying and strong alliance with the Republican Party has contributed to gridlock on background checks, red-flag law legislation and other popular reforms advocated by gun-control advocates and many gun owners. “This is a tough fight,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading advocate of gunviolence prevention. “But it is unquestionably a winnable fight. All the ingredients are here. We have the NRA bogged down in court, the vast majority of people on our side and we have the momentum.”
The movement to reduce gun violence has been propelled in recent years by large investments by figures such as former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and grass-roots campaigns driven by young survivors of mass shootings, such as the 2018 killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
A Washington Post-ABC poll taken last month found that 50 percent of Americans support enacting new laws to reduce gun violence, down from a peak of 57 percent after the Parkland shooting.
The poll showed a clear and growing partisan divide. While more than 8 in 10 Democrats continue to support enacting new gun laws — about the same share as in 2018 — opinions have shifted among Republicans. This year, 76 percent of Republicans say protecting the right to own guns should be a higher priority, up from 58 percent three years ago.
Following a string of mass shootings this spring — including those that left eight dead at Atlanta-area spas, eight dead at an Indianapolis FedEx warehouse and 10 dead at a Colorado grocery store — President Biden announced executive actions and called on Congress to enact sweeping changes to the country’s firearms laws, including universal background checks.
Hundreds gather in March for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of a mass shooting that left 10 dead at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Co.
But more than a month after Biden’s call to action, there is little to show on Capitol Hill. Two bills aimed at expanding background checks passed the Democratic-controlled House in March but have languished so far in the Senate.
The measures aim to tighten the current law, which requires licensed firearm dealers to review individual purchasers before a gun sale is completed. The House bills would expand background checks to include private transactions between unlicensed individuals and would close the “Charleston loophole,” which allows gun sales to go through after three business days even if the background check is not completed.
For the past several weeks, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has convened private talks with Republican senators, including Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and John Cornyn of Texas, in search of a modified background check bill that could get the necessary 60 votes to avoid a Senate filibuster, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Most Republicans say the House bills go too far. In a statement, the NRA’s lobbying arm said it opposed the House expansion of background checks because they are not effective at blocking dangerous criminals from obtaining weapons and would “criminalize” gun transfers commonly used by hunters, competitive shooters and law-abiding citizens.
That was disputed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who introduced one of the House measures and cited Justice Department data showing the impact of such checks. “Every day in the licensed dealers where you have to get a background check, 170 felons are stopped from buying a gun, 50 domestic abusers every day are stopped from buying a gun,” he told reporters in March after his legislation passed the House. “That’s through the existing background check program. It only makes sense if it’s expanded, you’ll stop even more felons, more domestic abusers.”
Some Republicans, including Cornyn, have said they generally favor background checks and have been actively talking with Murphy about compromise language that would not go as far as the House versions but could close some loopholes.
But Cornyn said last week that he has no progress to report.
“There’s nothing right now to say other than we are still talking,” he said Thursday in an interview.
In a separate interview, Murphy offered a bit more optimism — acknowledging that a proposal is not likely to emerge before the Memorial Day recess but adding there could be signs of a possible deal in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been trading language with a handful of Republican members,” Murphy said.
The senator from Connecticut has been at the forefront of pushing for background checks and other gun restrictions since the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 26 were killed. The deaths of so many young children deeply shook the country.
LaPierre famously responded with defiance to the calls for regulation that followed that tragedy.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA chief said in the aftermath.
Jose Luis Magana
NRA officials dispute that the organization has lost influence amid its legal travails.
A few months later, the Senate rejected a background checks bill backed by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who are both participating in this year’s Senate negotiations.
Murphy and some of his allies say the NRA is in a weakened position this time.
“The NRA is a shell of its former self,” the Connecticut Democrat said Thursday, citing the bankruptcy decision and the New York attorney general’s legal challenge. “You know, right now the gun lobby is on the mat.”
The NRA’s chief lobbyist in Washington, Jason Ouimet, rejected that characterization.
“That’s wishful thinking,” he said in an interview. “If we were so weak, why haven’t they passed the House background check legislation in the Senate? There is a reason, and the reason is NRA members — and our team of lobbyists they support in Washington and state capitols around the country.”
The NRA has denounced the civil suit filed in New York, calling it politically motivated. Officials say the organization is financially strong and is growing despite its legal setbacks, with more than 200,000 new members coming aboard since Jan. 1.
Following some cuts during the pandemic and the departure of his experienced and well-connected predecessor, Christopher Cox, Ouimet said that the NRA lobbying team is back at full strength and talking frequently with legislators.
The division he leads, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, recently spent $2 million on a television and grass-roots organizing campaign in Montana, Maine, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, urging voters to call their senators and “stop Biden’s gun grab.”
Some who lobby the other side of the gun-control issue, such as Brady PAC executive director Brian Lemek, see the NRA’s influence as waning but still strong due to what he called “a baked-in narrative of fearmongering.”
Lemek and other gun-control advocates said the NRA is much less visible on Capitol Hill than in the past.
But GOP Senate offices said they continue to hear from the NRA — but also from an array of new gun rights organizations. “As the population of gun owners continues to grow and becomes more diverse, it’s unsurprising that we’d see an outgrowth of diverse gun rights groups that represent their interests,” said Taylor Foy, spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Cornyn said the NRA’s legal woes are not a factor in the current debate. “What matters is the constitutional right that law-abiding citizens have to keep and bear arms,” he said.
One of the biggest hurdles for gun-control advocates is the expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment that the NRA succeeded in making mainstream, some legal experts say.
In 1991, former Supreme Court chief justice Warren E. Burger condemned the gun lobby for perpetrating what he called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud” on the American public.
“The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies — the militia — would be maintained for the defense of the state,” Burger said in a 1991 PBS interview, five years after he had retired from the court. “The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
The views of Burger, who was nominated to the high court by President Richard M. Nixon, were once embraced by many conservative jurists, Winkler noted. But that position is now anathema to many inside the Republican Party.
A day after the mass shooting in Boulder, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) bristled at gun restrictions proposed by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens, because that’s their political agenda,” he said.
That sentiment may be leading gun rights supporters to join smaller gun lobbying groups, which say they are expanding as the NRA has been contending with allegations of mismanagement.
“While the NRA may be distracted, gun owners and their advocacy organizations are not,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, in an interview last month, adding that his group has seen “significant growth in membership.”
The NRA’s legal setback won’t affect the policy debate, he said, because “most members of Congress already have their minds made up on what they will support or not support” when it comes to gun legislation.
Like others lobbying on the issue, Gottlieb predicted that little, if any, legislation will move through Congress to regulate firearms this year.
The push by Democratic leaders to pass background check and other legislation creates more resistance, he said: “All they end up doing is selling more guns.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.