January 17, 2013

NRA trains big political guns on states

Lawmakers are bending under pressure as the group rouses its members to oppose firearms limits.

By PETER WALLSTEN and TOM HAMBURGER, The Washington Post

In state capitals and city halls nationwide, the National Rifle Association is demonstrating its enduring ability to thwart new firearms regulations and expand rights for gun owners -- even after a school massacre in Newtown, Conn., gave the gun-control cause new momentum.

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A National Rifle Association poster decorates a booth at the 35th annual "SHOT show" on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Lawmakers both fear and admire the group’s political power.

The Associated Press

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This frame grab image shows a scene from video released by the National Rifle Association. In a sharp pushback against any new gun regulations, the NRA posted a Web video on Wednesday.

The Associated Press

WHITE HOUSE FINDS 'REPUGNANT' NRA VIDEO DRAWING FIRST FAMILY INTO FRAY

The White House says a National Rifle Association video that makes reference to President Obama's daughters is "repugnant and cowardly."

Obama spokesman Jay Carney says most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as "pawns in a political fight." Carney was referring to an online video from the pro-gun lobby that calls Obama an "elitist hypocrite" for having armed Secret Service agents protect his daughters at school while voicing skepticism about putting armed guards in all schools.

The NRA released the video ahead of Obama's announcement Wednesday of proposals for curbing the nation's gun violence.

-- The Associated Press

Just last week, Illinois state House members declined to consider proposed limits on assault weapons amid a surge of negative phone calls and e-mails from NRA members and other gun owners. In Wisconsin last week, legislators wary of provoking the NRA backed off a proposed ban on loaded firearms in the public gallery overlooking the state assembly chamber. In suburban Los Angeles, Glendale City Council members anticipate a packed and emotional meeting next week as a result of NRA-issued "grass-roots alerts" protesting proposed limits on gun shows. And legislators in at least seven states are weighing whether to allow public school staff members to carry weapons to work, as the NRA has urged.

The local and state-level skirmishes underscore the obstacles that await President Obama and congressional Democrats as they prepare to push new gun-control measures in the face of stiff opposition from the NRA and its Capitol Hill allies -- many of whom represent areas where gun ownership is a cherished value.

Gun rights advocates suffered a setback in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have allowed concealed weapons in schools, day-care centers and other public places. Another defeat came this week, when New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and legislature approved new bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. It was only by moving with extraordinary speed that the state prevented the NRA from mounting its typically muscular opposition.

The group and its allies, confident in their traditional ability to block congressional action, consider state capitals the prime battlegrounds and are planning to shore up their influence in states where they may be vulnerable, such as Maryland and other Democratic-led states.

As legislators, local officials and advocates on both sides of the issue can attest, the NRA has a political arsenal that can outmatch even the most powerful interest groups -- chambers of commerce, medical associations and police federations.

Many lawmakers naturally embrace and applaud the NRA's aggressive defense of gun rights. Even legislative opponents speak in admiring terms of the group's organizational skills, saying they have been forced to compromise or give up on gun-control initiatives rather than engage the NRA.

Obama acknowledged the importance of the NRA's base as he presented his proposals Wednesday, saying that success in Congress would require support from "voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong."

The NRA and its vast network of local affiliates achieve their success through a mix of skilled local lobbying and voter mobilization. Annual report cards rate legislators on an A-F scale based on voting records, and the group sends millions of blaze-orange postcards during campaigns to tout its friends or attack its enemies. As a reward to those with high grades, the NRA provides endorsements and campaign support. It also offers friendly lawmakers access to legal counsel and legislative research.

The organization, which has an annual budget of more than $200 million, directs campaign donations to its supporters in both parties, with contributions to federal campaigns totaling about $20 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Comprehensive figures for state campaigns were not available.

But NRA officials and lawmakers on both sides say the group's power stems mostly from its ability to activate its passionate membership.

With an e-mail alert system designed to target its 4.2 million members, the NRA can mobilize hundreds of gun owners in every community on short notice to turn out at a committee hearing or a city council meeting.

(Continued on page 2)

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