The NRA's big guns

Meet the 10 biggest obstacles to gun reform legislation.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 12, 1999 2:15PM (UTC)
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Poll after poll indicates that most Americans -- including most gun owners --
agree with Janet Reno about one thing. "It is common sense, pure common sense, to
ensure that guns are only in the hands of those who know how to safely and
lawfully use them and have the capacity and the willingness to do so," the
attorney general said after the recent shooting at a Los Angeles-area Jewish day-care center.

But judging by their foot-dragging on new gun-control measures, our
representatives in Washington seem to think that they represent a slice of
America consisting entirely of Charlton Heston's bungalow.


That Congress continues to slay any and every gun law -- no matter how popular, incidental or seemingly reasonable -- is a tribute to the gun industry's powerhouse of a lobby, the National Rifle Association.

The NRA's superpowers originate in its wallet -- the group donated $1.6 million in
PAC contributions to candidates for federal office last election cycle alone.
From 1991-98, the NRA gave nearly $9 million to candidates, parties and
PACs, all the more impressive compared with the relatively paltry sum ($146,000)
offered up by Handgun Control Inc., Washington's largest anti-gun lobby. (Full disclosure: I worked for Handgun Control for six months in 1997.)

For the NRA, as for other big political contributors, money is leverage. The
senators who voted against a recent measure that would have required background
checks at gun shows received an average of $10,500 from pro-gun groups, while
those who voted to close the loophole received, on average, closer
to $300.


The sizable coffers also allow the NRA to present a united lobbying front on
Capitol Hill. The NRA spent $2.25 million on lobbying in 1998 alone -- cash that
allowed the interest group to employ 10 full-time lobbyists in addition to the
six lobbying firms it keeps in its holster on retainer.

But it's overly simplistic to argue that the NRA rules with its wallet alone. The
NRA has a mobilized and active grass-roots membership it claims to be 3 million
strong. These are largely single-issue men (and some women) who write millions of
postcards, attend town meetings and candidate forums and vote. As a result,
they command attention from their representatives.

Money and membership are significant bullets in the NRA's Uzi, but there's more
to it than that. Lost among all of this financial and electoral clout is the fact that the NRA's allies in Congress happen to agree with the NRA's hard-line stance on the Second Amendment.


Staunch NRA advocates have held the House leadership's feet to the fire in the
face of the new push for gun restrictions on Capitol Hill, according to Kristin
Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

She says House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., "is a problem, but he's not a true believer. Hastert has at least made some conciliatory statements. He's sent signals that he's sympathetic to a compromise on some of these issues. He's in no
way an NRA stalwart. I suspect that if he didn't have [Whip Tom] DeLay and [Majority Leader Dick] Armey and [Rep. Bob] Barr tugging him so far right on this, Hastert would probably have let the amendment [closing the gun-show loophole] go."


Here, however, are the true believers -- in order, a list of the NRA's 10 best friends in Washington.

1) Sen. Trent Lott, Senate Majority Leader, R-Miss.: One of the most powerful
legislators in the world, Lott was also one of the keynote speakers at the NRA's
127th national convention in Philadelphia in June 1998. "You are the mainstream
of America," Lott said, adding that if Congress were to pass further gun
restrictions, "we might as well fold up the flag and melt down the Liberty Bell."
Whenever possible, he's used any procedural motion at his disposal to shoot down
any and every gun-control law Democrats have proposed. "And he tries to appear
reasonable as he does it, which is his trick," says lobbyist Marie Carbone of
Handgun Control Inc.

2) Rep. Tom DeLay, House Majority Whip, R-Texas: What would it take for
Majority Whip DeLay to change his mind on the issue of whether or not too many
nut jobs have too much access to high-powered weapons? Would a crazed gunman have
to infiltrate the capital and start firing at DeLay himself? Not hardly. That's
exactly what happened one year ago last month, and DeLay is still as convinced as
ever that the problem is, as he puts it, God, not guns.
Since Republicans took control of the House in November 1994, not one gun-control
measure has passed the House other than an attempt to repeal the assault weapons
ban of '94. That measure passed the House in 1996 and was subsequently ignored by the
Senate. An incredibly effective whip, DeLay deserves much of the credit for this
track record.


3. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho: Craig, an NRA board member, has long opposed
even small seatbelt-like safety measures for guns, such as
trigger locks.
After the Senate passed the Juvenile Justice Bill, Craig said,
"the Democrats and the vice president ... feel restricting the Second Amendment rights
of law-abiding citizens is more important than combating the plague of youth
violence infecting this nation." During the recent gun-control debate in the House, Craig offered an amendment that
he claimed would close the gun-show loophole, but actually weakened federal law.
The next day, after discovering what the Craig amendment actually did, even
conservatives like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were offended and rebelled,
insisting on another vote for an amendment more substantial than Craig's.

4) Rep. Dick Armey, House Majority Leader, R-Texas: Armey's clout has
diminished ever since he lied about his role in the attempted coup of
then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, but as majority leader he's still somewhat large and
in charge. And he's anti-gun control. "He's another crafty one," says Handgun
Control's Carbone. "He doesn't rail against gun control on the floor like [Rep.]
Bob Barr, but behind closed doors he makes sure that it's hard or downright
impossible for gun-control measures to make it out onto the floor -- or out of committee, even."

5) Gov. George W. Bush, R-Texas: Though he has yet to officially move to
Washington, as governor of the nation's second largest state, Bush has continued
to do the bidding of the NRA -- an organization from which his father resigned in
protest after its reference to government agents as "jack-booted thugs." Bush the younger, however, signed a lax law bestowing the right to carry a loaded concealed weapon upon almost anyone, and he refused to require background checks at gun shows -- despite repeated requests from the police chiefs of the seven largest
cities in his state. His one action to date on the issue was largely symbolic, and pro-NRA: He outlawed the ability of any Texas city to sue
the gun industry -- at a time when no city was even seriously contemplating doing
so. On the presidential campaign trail, when asked what he thinks about gun
control, Bush continually responds, curtly, "I support the Second Amendment."
Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of federal courts have ruled against that interpretation of the Second Amendment, for some people it's still that simple. Bush
appears to be one of them.


6) Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.: Ashcroft merits inclusion on this list primarily for going above and beyond the
call of duty for the NRA in its April attempt to pass a law to allow Missourians
to carry concealed weapons. Ashcroft lent his considerable state credibility to
the cause by cutting radio ads for the NRA -- which ending up losing, even
though the group dropped $4 million on the campaign, outspending the referendum's opponents by a 5-1 ratio. In the U.S. Senate, he is a reliable vote for the gun lobby.

7) Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.: House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde,
R-Ill., has voted in support of gun-control measures in the past, like the
Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. Despite that fact, gun-control bills are
constipated in committee because of McCollum, who chairs the House subcommittee on crime.

Recently, while the panel was reviewing a bill that would have allowed police officers to carry guns across state lines, McCollum added an
amendment that would have extended that same privilege to ordinary citizens with
concealed-carry licenses. (The bill made it out of committee, but has yet to hit
the House floor.) Interestingly, McCollum reportedly refuses to take NRA money.

8) Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.: Ever since the GOP took over, Dingell, the
ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, has been hibernating on the gun issue -- despite the fact that he was a member of the NRA's board of directors for years. Then came the recent House vote on closing the gun-show loophole, and Dingell awoke, offering an NRA-backed bill to counteract Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's legislation. Leading the charge for the NRA as a Democrat, Dingell thus provided cover for pro-gun Democrats, as well as diminishing the bill's usefulness as a partisan
issue for the Democrats to trot out in 2000. Dingell, it should be noted,
referred to agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms as "jack-booted
thugs" long before NRA vice chairman Wayne LaPierre used such controversial rhetoric
in a fund-raising letter.


9) Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.: Barr is probably the most outspoken pro-gun
member of Congress, and has been officially honored by the NRA as such. Most recently, Barr drafted a bill that would outlaw lawsuits
against the gun industry.
"He's the biggest troublemaker," says the Violence
Policy Center's Rand. "He's the NRA's flag-bearer in the House, and is unparalleled for toeing the NRA line."

10) Sen. Bob Smith, I-N.H.: Though Smith's influence in the Senate is
marginal -- all the more so since he defected to the far-right U.S.
Taxpayers Party
-- even the most obscure senator enjoys powers and privileges
that members of the more hierarchical House can only dream about. Thus, Smith was
able to put a hold on the Juvenile Justice Bill for several weeks, gumming up the legislative process even though versions had passed both the House and Senate -- as is his prerogative as long as he remains in the Senate, regardless of party

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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