Picking up from Tuesday’s post, Tom Diaz & I—The 94th & 103rd Congresses, and Now
By far, the strongest impressions left on me by the whole experience came from our interactions with representatives of the NRA and their allies:
- This is not your father’s organization. The chief counsel and I were invited to visit the NRA’s headquarters on DuPont Circle in northwest D.C., which have since relocated to suburban northern Virginia. We were escorted to the top-floor office of the late Ashley Halsey, Jr., who’d edited the American Rifleman for nine years. First, we were asked if we’d like to adjourn to the basement firing range to “fire off a few.” From the raised eyebrows, winks, and expectant looks, we formed the impression that they thought, once we got our hands around a real gun, boy Howdy… I don’t know if my boss had ever fired a long or handgun, but I’d been immunized. A friend’s father, a World War II Marine veteran—likely either amused by or fed up with our SGT Rock bravado in the front yard—took us out for a session with his .45 caliber Colt sidearm. Even through sprawled across the hood of his car, I remember being sore from the armpits forward and my ears ringing for a week. At any rate, we declined, politely. Next, Halsey took his own Colt .45—1911 bright nickel with faux ivory grips, as I recall—out of a bottom desk drawer to wave around. It had a magazine aboard and he didn’t show us whether the chamber was clear or not. Lots of hormonal rhetoric about the gun’s place in American life followed. (I do remember thinking: If I’d behaved this way in front of an adult back home, I’d have gotten my ass kicked.) I came to learn, from study, additional meetings, and correspondence, that the great majority of the NRA’s members lived in the Northeastern U.S. While on reflection this made sense, from a pure, general population distribution standpoint, it called into question how much of their agenda was driven by the Life Member sportsmen I came up around.
- Hard right turn. The NRA had a long history of unquestioned favorable treatment in procuring military-surplus and retired weapons and ammunition—until it was learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered the rifle with which he assassinated President Kennedy from the pages of the American Rifleman. Two more political assassinations resulted in the Gun Control Act of 1968, and persisting federal interest in the public safety consequences of virtually unrestricted access to firearms and lack of accountability for ownership alarmed the organization. The year of our inquiry, they created a distinct lobbying arm called the Institute for Legislative Action and put Harlon B. Carter in charge. Carter, a Texan and retired head of the U.S. Border Patrol, was an unabashed opponent of any further firearms controls and immediate challenged the “Old Guard’s” patrician, sport-oriented zeitgeist. Two years later, he fomented the “Cincinnati Revolution” at the annual meeting and took control of the organization. Before the decade was out, the NRA tripled its membership and budget—on paper, at least—under his leadership, and it was beyond question what their overarching mission was.
- Unbound by the facts—or rules. In my four decades of experience in political and public policy debate, there has never been an organization whose leaders and members are as skilled at creating and hewing to a fundamental position and accompanying message—damn the details or evidence to the contrary. Data and logic mean nothing to them, and every conceivable suggestion to reduce gun violence constitutes the same Draconian level of attack on the Second Amendment and “law-abiding gun owners.” (In 1975, Robert Sherrill described their vision for America as “a phantasmagoria of roscoes,” in which everyone vertical and breathing packs a piece. Given their record on state “conceal and carry” laws, as described by Diaz, and Wayne LaPierre’s solutions for future Sandy Hook-style massacres, that hasn’t changed.) Exponents of a contrary opinion are threatened with execution by ballot, if elected, and some other kind of dark retribution, if not. As legislative staff, we fielded threatening telephone calls and received hate mail routinely. As we finished the advance work for our first televised hearing at WTTW, the PBS affiliate in Chicago, the station began receiving letters and calls from self-identified NRA members, threatening to surround the place with “tens of thousands of law-abiding gun owners”–armed or otherwise. (They didn’t, but our poor producer began signing all his communications to us as “Perry Noid.”)
- “Grass roots”—or “AstroTurf?” Anyone who works in or around any legislative body learns quickly to respect the power of a well-turned personal communication from a constituent voter. The NRA was an early pioneer of and remains enviable at mobilizing their members to fashion and deliver their message strategically. In those cruder days, we would receive 30 to 50,000 postcards addressed to subcommittee members at key stages in the process—identical, but targeted. It wasn’t a lot of fun for us because we had to sort those suckers. Personal correspondence was more entertaining, and sometimes frightening. A model letter would be distributed through the Rifleman or by mail, which the members would personalize—or copy verbatim—and send, as instructed. I remember seeing a letter that had been sweated over by a constituent unaccustomed to regular correspondence. The shaky scrawl ran out about halfway down the page, followed by a firm, feminine hand, which had added: “My husband says to tell you that you make him sick! Respectfully yours…”
- “The paranoid five percent.” The fear of being turned out at the next election is a time-honored tradition among incumbents and often defies reason. One of our members, a long-time Republican Representative from Orange County (California), whom I admired for his intelligence and eloquence, was sweating over supporting the bill, so his chief of staff asked for a meeting to talk about it. We reminded him that (1) he’d won his last election with 76 percent of the vote; (2) he had no opponent in the 1976 party primary; and (3) the Democrat he would face in the fall had already admitted—cheerfully—that he was running for public office on the advice of his therapist. He looked at us and said, “You just never know, boys. There’s a paranoid five percent out there that can always swing an election, depending on turnout.”
- Political “paper tiger.” The NRA has always been known for overstating its likely and actual effect on elections, frequently and at high volume. (See “The paranoid five percent,” above.) Their record has never matched their claims. Take the 2012 federal elections, for example. If you compare the NRA-ILA’s post-election post mortem with, say, the Houston Chronicle’s, you wouldn’t think they were reporting from the same planet. Their single-mindedness has paid off over time, though; through sheer repetition and constant reinforcement by lazy media, their purported power over incumbents and candidates for the Congress has become an unquestioned part of Capitol Hill lore and calculus. This phenomenon was on display in John Oliver’s Daily Show piece Tuesday night:
Thus, political reality has been replaced by a self-fulfilling prophecy: All things being equal, and given their reputation and utter lack of interest in any kind of modus vivendi, why go out of one’s way to tweak the NRA tiger’s tail—even if the evidence suggests it’s old and mostly toothless?
This phenomenon is the product of the political “triangulation” of which Tom Diaz complains and—as I said—he’s right, up to a point. Merely calling out individual incumbents for failing to stand up to an established, single-issue lobby isn’t enough. The NRA has been smart enough to marry its own marketable skills—primarily grass-roots organization mobilization and, to a lesser extent, fundraising—with those of like-minded organizations on the right, like ALEC and those marching under the Koch banner. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision hasn’t hurt them, either. (Mother Jones provides an easily-digested summary here.)
In the near term, those of us who want to win reasonable firearms regulation, as in other developed cultures (Socialism!), will have to re-enlist as politically-active citizens and provide sufficient counterweight to NRA’s four million members and their allies. This requires not just making your opinions known to your own elected representatives and organizing to persuade the like-minded to do the same, where it will make a difference in the outcome, but also investing the time and treasure to protect at election time those incumbents and candidates whose support you demand, on this and any other issue.
Long-term, we must insist on a serious national discussion about electoral, media, and—possibly—constitutional reforms that will take the profit motive and existing incentives to skew voting for advantage out of politics altogether.