Taking Aim

The NRA isn’t thrilled with George W. Bush, but it positively dislikes John Kerry.


Dick Cheney drew standing ovations at the National Rifle Association’s 133rd annual convention in Pittsburgh this weekend when he derided John Kerry and made his pitch for Bush-Cheney 04. “John Kerry’s approach to the Second Amendment has been to regulate, regulate and regulate some more,” the veep told a cheering crowd.

The leadership of the NRA, which has 4 million gun-toting members is strongly behind the president, painting Kerry, a combat veteran and avid hunter, as a overzealous regulator, and backing Bush, whose party has been NRA-friendly at least since the Reagan years.

Yet some NRA members are reportedly not so thrilled with Bush. Some are unhappy that Bush supports extending the Federal Assault Weapons Act, an assault weapons ban, signed by Clinton in 1994, that would expire in September. (This may turn out to be moot, as the Republican Congress will probably prevent the bill from reaching the president’s desk.) Some NRA members also feel that Bush has stepped on civil liberties and infringed on privacy by way of thePatriot Act, which makes it easier for police to search homes without a warrant.

Neither party has made gun control a major issue in the presidential race, but gun rights, like abortion and gay marriage, is one of those red meat issues that Republicans need to attend to if they want to keep the base happy. The NRA has claimed some credit for influencing many of America’s 80 million gun owners to favor Bush in 2000. Even if there is less than unanimous support for Dubya among its own ranks, the NRA leadership is hoping to buoy the Bush team in creative ways that work around soft money campaign donation limits. The organization donated $1 million to Bush during his last bid for the White House, and spent $18 million helping other Republicans four years ago.

One way the NRA is getting the message out is through NRA News. Launched on an Internet radio station during the convention– and masquerading as a bona fide news outlet — NRA News’s all-guns-all-the-time talk show promotes the Second Amendment in the rapid-fire cadence of the talk-show jock.

The NRA aims to broadcast its $1 million online program daily and it is reportedly trying to secure deals to buy a radio station and a TV outlet. The NRA’s multi-pronged media assault is designed to use part of its $180 million annual budget to promote its politics and its favorite politicians, who tend to be Republican.

But the media venture is a bid to grab headlines, according to Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. Remember the NRA Café that was supposed to open up years ago in Times Square? It didn’t, and neither will the media ventures fully materialize, according to Sugarmann.

“They have to claim it’s a legitimate media outlet because of the campaign finance issues but I would not take that at face value,” Sugarmann told MotherJones.com.

Could people who stumble across an NRA News broadcast be coaxed into becoming card-carrying members? It’s unlikely.

“They’ll talk about engaging the mainstream and bringing in new supporters but what they’re looking at is keeping hardliners in line working to promote their cause.”

So how well did Cheney help the NRA’s cause and Bush?

A Newsday editorial written before the conference advised:

Bills to renew the [semiautomatic assault weapons] ban have gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated House. They have fared a bit better in the Senate, where a slim majority voted in March to add an amendment renewing the ban to the immunity bill.

The White House paid lip service to support for renewal then, but apparently didn’t really mean it, because at the same time Bush also called for a clean immunity bill, one free of the assault weapon ban and other gun control measures. He didn’t get it, and the immunity bill died after the NRA withdrew its support.

There is no rational reason to allow deadly assault weapons to be reintroduced onto the nation’s streets. Bush should support the ban in deed as well as word. When Cheney takes the podium tonight at the sold- out NRA members’ banquet, he should stand tall and tell the crowd that’s exactly what he and his boss are going to do.

Instead, Cheney dodged the hot-button issue and made no mention of the ban from the stage.

Outside the conference, a man wore the shoes his son had on when he was gunned down at Columbine High School, to protest the NRA, which in 1999, just 11 days after the shootings, rallied in Denver, 15 miles away from Littleton, Co. He drew jeers from some conference-goers.

In the meantime, both gun-rights and gun-control proponents are declaring victory for their own campaigns.

Americans own 30 million semiautomatic weapons, which account for 15 percent of guns. Those in favor of banning the rifles blame them for the spectacular, unnecessary destruction they can cause. Yet the NRA claims that Americans have the Constitutional right to bear Uzis and M-16s, whether for hunting or for display cases at home. The group fears that a ban will bring Americans one step closer to losing the right to keep even small pistols for sport or self-defense, and will drive more guns onto the black market.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported that crimes using semiautomatics dropped between 1995 and 2002 to some one percent of violent crimes from more than three percent in 1995. Yet Justice Department figures show that the level of violent crimes using semiautomatics has stayed the same, at less than two percent.

As Edward Epstein describes in the San Francisco Chronicle:

No one can say what role the ban, which expires in September, has played in the sharp drop in crime during the 1990s.
The lack of definite statistics allows supporters and opponents of the assault-weapons ban, as well as advocacy groups on either side, to toss around figures that buttress their argument. …

What might matter more than facts are communities’ experiences, especially since the debate over the guns is literally a matter of life and death.