We're in the early stages of a lengthy process that will involve hearings, competing bills, horse-trading, and the usual ugliness of life in the Capitol Hill sausage factory, but the contours of gun legislation are beginning to take shape. Though President Obama is out campaigning for the full package of reforms he has been advocating, there are indications that the assault weapons ban may get dropped in order to forestall a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and a bipartisan group is about to introduce a bill in the House on gun trafficking and straw purchases. (I'll discuss the assault weapons question in a later post). In other words, the actual legislative process is getting underway.
And though it's by no means assured that some gun measures will pass Congress, if any do, we'll partly have the NRA to thank. That's because, I believe, the organization fundamentally misread the role it plays in the minds of the average voter. They've become more extremist in the last two decades, but most people didn't realize it, because unless you're a member and are getting their magazines and emails or seeing their representatives appear at conventions, you had no idea just how extreme they'd become. So the idea that the NRA is just the guardian of Americans' gun rights could persist. An average gun owner who saw that the NRA endorsed a candidate could say, whatever else he thought of that candidate, "I suppose he's all right when it comes to guns." But now that Wayne LaPierre has been appearing on television shows, the whole country has gotten to see just what a maniac he is, and how extreme the organization has become. And now that there are concrete proposals on the table, voters can see that the NRA will oppose even universal background checks, which every opinion poll taken in the last couple of months has shown are supported by an astonishing 90 percent of the public. When even the host of Fox News Sunday is calling your arguments "ridiculous" and "nonsense," you've got a problem.
So now, members of Congress who just a few months ago would never have considered bucking the NRA on anything may realize that it isn't that much of a risk to oppose them on a particular measure, provided it has wide public support. Instead of worrying that they'll be branded "anti-gun" for disagreeing with the NRA on anything, they may be saying to themselves that if they've got the public behind them, it may not be such a risk after all to support something like universal background checks.
The NRA's model of influence—absolute opposition to any measure to restrict guns combined with apocalyptic rhetoric aimed at its supporters—worked as long as the gun issue was out of the spotlight. But now that we're having an actual debate, things have changed. It's becoming clear that while they represent a certain portion of gun owners, they definitely don't speak for all gun owners, which is what they'd like legislators to believe. And that may provide just enough of an opening for legislation to pass.