President Obama’s campaign for his package of gun control proposals has uncertain prospects in Congress. But a day after he surrounded himself with children and family members of the victims of the Newtown massacre it’s clear his purpose is not so much to ban assault weapons as it is to energize liberals and demonize the National Rifle Association. The emotional nature of his presentation made it clear that if he has his way the upcoming debate on the issue would center on whether you want to keep 1st graders safe and not on whether a new assault weapons ban or any of the other ideas would actually do anything to prevent another Newtown, or similar shootings. The open question is whether gun rights advocates can distract the Senate and the public from this dramatic talk about dead children to the more sober one of how any of this will actually make Americans safer.
At the core of the answer to that query is the group that is supposedly leading the charge against Obama’s proposals. For decades the NRA has used its mass membership and clout on Capitol Hill to maintain a firewall of resistance to any infringement of the rights of gun owners. There is no reason to believe that support or clout has evaporated, but the fate of the president’s gun campaign may hinge on whether the NRA has become more of a liability to opponents of limitations on gun ownership than an asset. Liberals speak of a changed dynamic in the national conversation about guns after Newtown, but that may have more to do with the way the NRA has unwittingly played into the hands of the president over the last month. From its initial post-Newtown press conference, which turned into a public relations disaster, to its equally foolish ad that mentioned the president’s daughters, it has rapidly become clear that the NRA has become the president’s best ally in his effort to bulldoze opposition to a new assault weapons ban. While the chances of the president being able to get his way in Congress remain slight, every NRA blunder makes them seem a bit more realistic.
The NRA can point to the fact that its membership has grown in the weeks since Newtown. Its advocacy for more security for schools is popular as is its attempt to divert attention away from guns to video games even though that makes it look as if it is trying to save the Second Amendment by throwing the First under the bus.
The NRA’s efforts to persuade Senate Democrats not to back another assault weapons ban will also be strengthened by the confusion over which rifles fall under that rubric. As the New York Times noted in a feature today, the differences between most standard hunting rifles and those that might be called assault weapons may have more to do with cosmetic features, such as grips, than an ability to fire rapidly. Gun control advocates don’t want an assault weapons ban that will be drawn so narrowly as to leave out lots of weapons (Connecticut’s assault weapons ban did not include the AR-15, which was used in the Newtown murders), but if the law is written broadly it will be easier for the NRA to paint it as an effort to take legal sporting guns away from law-abiding citizens.
Like its counterparts on the left that support abortion, the NRA has often opposed even the most reasonable of gun control ideas because they saw them as the thin edge of the wedge of a movement to ban all guns. Though both the president and Vice President Biden continue to speak of their support for Second Amendment rights, far-reaching legislation will still be seen by many Americans as a manifestation of liberal disdain for gun rights rather than a reasonable attempt to limit weapons that are strictly military in nature.
The divide between urban and rural America about the role of guns in American culture and history has always been so great as to confound any attempt to make this a partisan issue. Gun control is doomed while Democrats and Republicans who represent districts outside of cities and suburbs are united in their desire to get “A” ratings from the NRA.
But the wild card in this equation is the president’s ability to demonize his opponents. If the conflict is between a Democratic president and the average American gun owner, the president will lose. But a standoff between the president and an NRA that can be depicted as the heartless foe of child safety and the cat’s paw of profiteering gun manufacturers is one the White House can win. That’s why the NRA’s decision to run the ad that mentioned Obama’s children was such a crucial blunder leading up to the president’s news conference yesterday. It played right into the White House’s talking points about their insensitivity and made the group seem like a bully.
The president can’t get his way on assault weapons so long as the debate is one that rests on logic and the facts about what will or won’t stop mass shootings. But so long as the focus is on the NRA, the president has a chance to win this battle. The switch from using the strident Wayne LaPierre as the group’s point man in the media to the more reasonable David Keene was a good decision. But even with Keene in the spotlight, it should be understood that the group is a natural piñata for both liberals and the media that may do their cause more harm than good.
Every PR blunder and misguided ad from the NRA is a gift to the president, as he successfully manipulates the nation’s emotional reaction to Newtown. As difficult as it may be for the NRA’s supporters to accept this, their best chance of prevailing in the Congress is to move out of the media spotlight and concentrate on low-key lobbying. The alternative will be to go on helping Obama by providing him with the straw man he needs to win a ban that gun owners feel will be only the first step toward the undermining of the Second Amendment.