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The Moment When The National Rifle Association Shot Itself In The Foot

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with National Rifle Association executive director Chris W. Cox , left, and NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, right. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with National Rifle Association executive director Chris W. Cox , left, and NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, right. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY)

District of Columbia v. Heller the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that upended decades of Second Amendment law and handed a major victory to supporters of gun rights, was “wrongly decided,” according to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

It’s a remarkable moment for the campaign itself and in the evolution of gun politics in the United States. Hillary Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, reportedly believed that his party’s support for an assault weapon’s ban cost Democrats about 20 seats in the 1994 U.S. House elections. Now, more than two decades later, the former Secretary of State has apparently decided that there is no margin to trying not to anger the gun lobby. Short of promising to send federal agents to every gun owner’s home to personally seize their firearms, it’s hard to imagine another statement the Hillary Clinton campaign could have made that is more likely to antagonize the National Rifle Association and its allies.

As recently as three years ago, President Clinton sang a cautious tune on guns, warning Democratic donors “not be self-congratulatory about how brave you [are] for being for” gun regulation because “the only brave people are the people who are going to lose their jobs if they vote with you.” A few months later, four Senate Democrats joined the overwhelming majority of the chamber’s Republicans in filibustering a popular background checks bill to death.

Yet, despite this history of many Democrats being reluctant to cross the NRA and its supporters, the organization has spent the last several years seemingly doing everything in its power to discourage Democrats from playing ball with the gun lobby.

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Early in the Obama presidency, for example, they sent a message that any official — or, at least, any Democrat — who departs from the gun lobby’s most maximalist stances would be labeled a heretic and subjected to the NRA’s full wrath. The NRA opposed Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court because, as a lower-court judge, Sotomayor followed a binding Supreme Court precedent that the NRA disagreed with. They opposed Justice Elena Kagan’s nomination in part because, as Solicitor General of the United States, Kagan remained neutral in a case seeking to overrule this precedent, rather than actively calling for an expansion of gun rights.

The NRA even ran ads against Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), a long-serving Republican, criticizing Lugar for supporting Sotomayor and Kagan. These ads contributed to Lugar’s loss to a much weaker primary candidate, who went on to lose to now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN).

Why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton come out against the most significant victory for gun rights supporters in American history when she knows that, no matter what she does, she will be castigated by the NRA?

One of the NRA’s most telling moments, however, involved a much more obscure nomination fight. Caitlin Halligan is a former Solicitor General of the state of New York that President Obama nominated to serve on a federal appeals court. As New York’s top litigator, she twice argued positions against gun manufacturers. This was enough to earn the NRA’s ire, and her work on these cases was repeatedly cited by Republican senators who filibustered her nomination.

The important thing to understand about Halligan — or, indeed, anyone who serves as a government lawyer — is that she was representing her client while she had a job that called on her to defend the state’s positions, regardless of whether she personally agreed with the arguments she advanced in that job. By opposing Halligan, the NRA sent a message to all lawyers in similar positions — if you get a guns case, you better either betray your client or resign in protest if you don’t want to incur our wrath.

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With respect to lawmakers and other officials who are already sympathetic to the NRA’s views, there’s a logic to punishing even the most minor of heresies. Lawmakers and potential judges who want to stay in the NRA’s good graces are now on notice that they risk being shunned if they do not obey the NRA’s wishes 100 percent of the time.

There is also, however, tremendous risk in this strategy for the NRA. For it also sends a message that, once a lawmaker has done anything that may have angered the gun lobby group at any point in their career, they might as well just give up trying to work with the NRA. Why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton come out against the most significant victory for gun rights supporters in American history when she knows that, no matter what she does, she will be castigated by the NRA?

Or, to put the NRA’s predicament another way, they are now all-in with just one of the nation’s two political parties. If Democrats run this table in this election, they have no reason to work with or even to fear the gun lobby. After all, no matter what Democratic lawmakers do, the NRA will still treat them the exact same way.

The NRA’s transformation from an organization that saw value in maintaining good relationships with some Democrats into its current, more partisan, and more absolutist form did not happen overnight. So it is difficult to pinpoint a single moment when the group most unambiguously told Democrats to stop caring what the NRA has to say. But, if you had to pick a date, a good choice would be September 16, 2014.

That’s the day that the NRA announced that it would spend $1.3 million to defeat former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and replace him with now-Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

Pryor was one of the four Democrats who opposed President Obama’s background check bill in 2013. It was a risky decision to place the interests of the gun lobby ahead of the preferences of his constituents. Polls around the time of the vote showed that 60 percent of Arkansas voters supported “requiring background checks for all gun sales, including gun shows and the internet.” And yet the NRA rewarded Pryor’s decision to go out on a limb for them by spending a fortune to defeat him.

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It’s a wonder why any Democrat would ever make common cause with the gun lobby ever again, after the NRA treated Pryor so poorly.