WASHINGTON — One Republican candidate in Missouri’s Senate race skipped the state party’s annual convention last week and traveled instead to Arizona, where he toured the site of a discredited 2020 election audit and falsely claimed it could lead to decertification of the results. Another contender recently announced a campaign event in the St. Louis suburbs with a former Trump administration official beloved by supporters of QAnon. Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey are making once fringe positions key pieces of their message to voters as they vie for the G...
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The National Rifle Association is the central and fiercest promoter of gun rights in America, and is again holding its annual convention days after a mass school shooting.
Just like the NRA's meeting after the 1999 Columbine attack, which defined an era of gun massacres in America's schools, the gathering opening Friday in Houston follows the killing of 19 children and two teachers in a Texas classroom.
The NRA has been weakened by scandal and turmoil, but remains the main force dedicated to advocating for the owners of the tens of millions of weapons that are readily obtainable across the country.
Here are some key points about the organization:
- Potent political force -
The 150-year-old NRA concentrated its focus on battling gun restrictions in the late 1970s and has become one of the most powerful lobbying groups in US history.
Its past influence on lawmakers has been far-reaching.
From 2000 to 2012, the NRA and its allies in the firearms industry combined to pour $80 million into US House of Representatives, Senate and presidential races, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the 2016 presidential election, the NRA spent about $20 million for ads attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton and another $10 million for ads supporting Republican Donald Trump.
Since the 1990s, the NRA has been able to deliver a powerful punch against local and national politicians it views as a threat to gun rights, contributing to the defeat of numerous centrist candidates.
- Many guns, many deaths -
The NRA has been a key proponent for an industry that has produced more than 139 million guns for the commercial market over the two decades from 2000, including 11.3 million in 2020 alone, according to government data.
At the same time, America annually records a toll of tens of thousands of gun deaths, with US authorities saying killings underwent an "historic" increase in 2020.
The US racked up 19,350 firearm homicides in 2020, up nearly 35 percent over 2019, and 24,245 gun suicides, up 1.5 percent.
- The post-Columbine era -
In the April 20, 1999 shooting at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado, two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, and signaled a new era of classroom killings in America.
The NRA's annual conference was scheduled to open less than two weeks later in Denver, a short drive from Littleton, prompting state and local politicians to criticize the planned meeting.
In the end, the NRA went ahead with a scaled-down gathering but voiced a defiant tone defending gun rights.
"Over the next two decades, this unapologetic message would come to define the NRA's tone in the wake of mass shootings at American schools," US broadcaster NPR wrote, after publishing recordings it said captured the group's debate over the response to Columbine.
- A troubled NRA -
The state of New York sued the group and its leader Wayne LaPierre in 2020 for financial fraud and misconduct, aiming to dissolve the powerful lobby.
Top NRA officials were accused of using dues and donations of members for years as a "personal piggy bank," spending tens of millions of dollars on themselves and their cronies in violation of laws governing non-profit organizations.
The group called it a baseless political attack, and in March a New York judge ruled that alleged self-dealing by the group's leader, if proven, would not warrant such a strong penalty as the disbanding of the association.
New York's lawsuit seeking to boot LaPierre from his post will, however, be allowed to proceed.
- Group in decline? -
NRA claims more than five million members, but there are signs that figure is on the wane, including a 2021 legal deposition from LaPierre in which he said numbers were "under 4.9 million."
US network CBS reported NRA's revenue declined 23 percent from roughly $367 million in 2016 to $282 million in 2020, the most recent year for which its tax filings are available.
It added that contributions and grants from members and corporations also have slipped 15 percent during that time.
Yet after an 18-year-old man opened fire this week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the group spoke up as the voice explaining why yet another mass shooting had happened.
"We recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal," their statement said. "As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events... and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure."
Trump was 'shaken' by El Paso mass shooting – but his aides convinced him not to take action: report
It was widely reported that in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, then-President Donald Trump shocked members of both parties when he expressed support for gun control measures. But he was later convinced to reverse course after meeting with the NRA.
Now, a new report from The New York Times reveals that Trump pushed for gun control measures a year later after a pair of gruesome mass shootings rocked the country once again, one where in August of 2019, a far-right gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, and then the next day when a man shot and killed nine people outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio.
Trump was reportedly "so shaken" by the violence that he made it clear to aides that he wanted to take some sort of action, and was again, convinced to reverse course, the report states.
“What are we going to do about assault rifles?” Mr. Trump asked.
“Not a damn thing,” Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, reportedly replied.
“Why?” Trump asked.
“Because you would lose," Mulvaney replied.
The Times reports that Trump ended up never pursuing an assault weapons ban, even though he called for one in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” where he criticized Republicans for opposing even limited gun restrictions.
Now, Trump is scheduled to speak at the NRA's annual conference this Friday, just days after 18-year-old Salvador Romero killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Why gun control laws don’t pass Congress, despite majority public support and repeated outrage over mass shootings
With the carnage in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York in May 2022, calls have begun again for Congress to enact gun control. Since the 2012 massacre of 20 children and four staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, legislation introduced in response to mass killings has consistently failed to pass the Senate. We asked political scientists Monika McDermott and David Jones to help readers understand why further restrictions never pass, despite a majority of Americans supporting tighter gun control laws.
Mass killings are becoming more frequent. Yet there has been no significant gun legislation passed in response to these and other mass shootings. Why?
Monika McDermott: While there is consistently a majority in favor of restricting gun access a little bit more than the government currently does, usually that’s a slim majority – though that support tends to spike in the short term after events like the recent mass shootings.
We tend to find even gun owners are in support of restrictions like background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows. So that’s one that everyone gets behind. The other one that gun-owning households get behind is they don’t mind law enforcement taking guns away from people who have been legally judged to be unstable or dangerous. Those are two restrictions on which you can get virtual unanimous support from the American public. But agreement on specific elements isn’t everything.
This isn’t something that people are clamoring for, and there are so many other things in the mix that people are much more concerned about right now, like the economy. Also, people are insecure about the federal budget deficit, and health care is still a perennial problem in this country. So those kinds of things top gun control legislation in terms of priorities for the public.
So you can’t just think about majority support for legislation; you have to think about priorities. People in office care what the priorities are. If someone’s not going to vote them out because of an issue, then they’re not going to do it.
The other issue is that you have just this different view of the gun situation in gun-owning households and non-gun-owning households. Nearly half of the public lives in a household with a gun. And those people tend to be significantly less worried than those in non-gun households that a mass shooting could happen in their community. They’re also unlikely to say that stricter gun laws would reduce the danger of mass shootings.
The people who don’t own guns think the opposite. They think guns are dangerous. They think if we restricted access, then mass shootings would be reduced. So you’ve got this bifurcation in the American public. And that also contributes to why Congress can’t or hasn’t done anything about gun control.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut speaks on the Senate floor, asking his colleagues, ‘Why are you here if not to solve a problem as existential as this?’
How does public opinion relate to what Congress does or doesn’t do?
David Jones: People would, ideally, like to think that members of Congress are responding to public opinion. I think that is their main consideration when they’re making decisions about how to prioritize issues and how to vote on issues.
But we also have to consider: What is the meaning of a member’s “constituency”? We can talk about their geographic constituency – everyone living in their district, if they’re a House member, or in their state, if they’re a senator. But we could also talk about their electoral constituency, and that is all of the people who contributed the votes that put them into office.
And so if a congressmember’s motive is reelection, they want to hold on to the votes of that electoral constituency. It may be more important to them than representing everyone in their district equally.
In 2020, the most recent congressional election, among citizens who voted for a Republican House member, only 24% of those voters wanted to make it more difficult to buy a gun.
So if you’re looking at the opinions of your voters versus those of your entire geographic constituency, it’s your voters that matter most to you. And a party primary constituency may be even narrower and even less in favor of gun control. A member may have to run in a party primary first before they even get to the general election. Now what would be the most generous support for gun control right now in the U.S.? A bit above 60% of Americans. But not every member of Congress has that high a proportion of support for gun control in their district. Local lawmakers are not necessarily focused on national polling numbers.
You could probably get a majority now in the Senate of 50 Democrats plus, say, Susan Collins and some other Republican or two to support some form of gun control. But it wouldn’t pass the Senate. Why isn’t a majority enough to pass? The Senate filibuster – a tradition allowing a small group of Senators to hold up a final vote on a bill unless a three-fifths majority of Senators vote to stop them.
Monika McDermott: This is a very hot political topic these days. But people have to remember, that’s the way our system was designed.
David Jones: Protecting rights against the overbearing will of the majority is built into our constitutional system.
Do legislators also worry that sticking their neck out to vote for gun legislation might be for nothing if the Supreme Court is likely to strike down the law?
David Jones: The last time gun control passed in Congress was the 1994 assault weapons ban. Many of the legislators who voted for that bill ended up losing their seats in the election that year. Some Republicans who voted for it are on record saying that they were receiving threats of violence. So it’s not trivial, when considering legislation, to be weighing, “Yeah, we can pass this, but was it worth it to me if it gets overturned by the Supreme Court?”
Going back to the 1994 assault weapons ban: How did that manage to pass and how did it avoid a filibuster?
David Jones: It got rolled into a larger omnibus bill that was an anti-crime bill. And that managed to garner the support of some Republicans. There are creative ways of rolling together things that one party likes with things that the other party likes. Is that still possible? I’m not sure.
It sounds like what you are saying is that lawmakers are not necessarily driven by higher principle or a sense of humanitarianism, but rather cold, hard numbers and the idea of maintaining or getting power.
Monika McDermott: There are obvious trade-offs there. You can have high principles, but if your high principles serve only to make you a one-term officeholder, what good are you doing for the people who believe in those principles? At some point, you have to have a reality check that says if I can’t get reelected, then I can’t do anything to promote the things I really care about. You have to find a balance.
Wouldn’t that matter more to someone in the House, with a two-year horizon, than to someone in the Senate, with a six-year term?
David Jones: Absolutely. If you’re five years out from an election and people are mad at you now, some other issue will come up and you might be able to calm the tempers. But if you’re two years out, that reelection is definitely more of a pressing concern.
Some people are blaming the National Rifle Association for these killings. What do you see as the organization’s role in blocking gun restrictions by Congress?
Monika McDermott: From the public’s side, one of the important things the NRA does is speak directly to voters. The NRA publishes for their members ratings of congressional officeholders based on how much they do or do not support policies the NRA favors. These kinds of things can be used by voters as easy information shortcuts that help them navigate where a candidate stands on the issue when it’s time to vote. This gives them some credibility when they talk to lawmakers.
David Jones: The NRA as a lobby is an explanation that’s out there. But I’d caution that it’s a little too simplistic to say interest groups control everything in our society. I think it’s an intermingling of the factors that we’ve been talking about, plus interest groups.
So why does the NRA have power? I would argue: Much of their power is going to the member of Congress and showing them a chart and saying, “Look at the voters in your district. Most of them own guns. Most of them don’t want you to do this.” It’s not that their donations or their threatening looks or phone calls are doing it, it’s the fact that they have the membership and they can do this research and show the legislator what electoral danger they’ll be in if they cast this vote, because of the opinions of that legislator’s core constituents.
Interest groups can help to pump up enthusiasm and make their issue the most important one among members of their group. They’re not necessarily changing overall public support for an issue, but they’re making their most persuasive case to a legislator, given the opinions of crucial voters that live in a district, and that can sometimes tip an already delicate balance.