The education of Joe Manchin

The former NRA darling now complains that the gun-makers' lobby is lying about his background check legislation

Published April 17, 2013 3:19PM (EDT)

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.        (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin had an A rating from the NRA, winning the endorsement of its PAC for his staunch defense of gun rights (and opposition to even sensible gun regulations). He made national headlines during his 2010 campaign with an ad that featured him shooting a copy of a cap and trade bill with a rifle, proving with one unforgettable image that he loved guns and hated energy regulation.

So it was big news when he decided to hook up with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey on compromise gun control legislation expanding background checks and closing the so-called gun-show loophole. When Manchin announced that he was working on such measures, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said it represented “real movement in the right direction” and might even “give cover to all of the other red state Democrats who are skittish about embracing this common sense step.” Sargent was also encouraged that the NRA darling said he was discussing the measures with the NRA.

But two months later, with a vote on the Manchin-Toomey measures set for Wednesday afternoon, the senator’s work is expected to end in defeat. He admitted as much to NBC News today, and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he even accused his former political patrons, the NRA, of lying about his legislation. The NRA is claiming that the amendment would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms by private citizens,” Manchin noted, complaining, “It is a lie.” The senator pointed out that his measure exempts sales between private individuals from the screening requirement.

As a matter of fact, while I was driving across country I heard “Gun Talk Radio” host and NRA proponent Tom Gresham explain that the Manchin-Toomey measure would force you to do a formal background check on your brother-in-law if you wanted to sell him your gun – or maybe even just lend it to him. Gresham also claimed that Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s real agenda involved “kicking down your door and taking your guns,” Both claims are lies, of course.

“If you don’t have credibility, you have nothing,” an angry Manchin told the  “Morning Joe” crew, talking about his former NRA friends. “If you don’t have credibility, they’ve lost everything in Washington.”

We’ll see. Gun control proponents have declared the NRA the losers before, and we’ve been wrong. Salon’s Blake Zeff is right: Despite the way things looked after Newtown, the NRA has won this round. I was overly optimistic about the capacity of President Obama and Vice President Biden to turn grief over Sandy Hook into votes for new gun control measures. I said NRA head Wayne LaPierre “self-destructed” when he ranted, a week after Newtown, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” His ad accusing Obama of hypocrisy because his daughters are protected at school by armed guards seemed deranged. I joked that the NRA was getting its post-Newtown reputation management assistance from the folks who told the Susan G. Komen Foundation to defund Planned Parenthood.

But the joke was on me. LaPierre’s seemingly crazy no-compromise strategy actually worked. As Zeff argues: “By effectively shifting the conversation far to the right, he also shifted rightward what constituted a 'compromise' in the gun discussion.” Meanwhile, Zeff notes, many gun control advocates abandoned Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s assault weapons ban proposal, which probably never could have been passed, but could have served as a countervailing force to pulling the “compromise” on guns so far to the right. Liberals, by the way, never seem to think that way, preferring to seem “reasonable” from the get-go and to negotiate with themselves.

Still, to look on the bright side, aside from a few stalwarts like the Brady Campaign, the pro-gun control forces had mostly surrendered over the last 10 years. Inspired by Newtown, they engaged with new fervor, and powerful new allies, like deep-pockets Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Tucson massacre survivor Gabby Giffords. Manchin’s “education” by his former NRA friends is the kind of life experience that might bring change.  He once believed he was allying with a gun owners’ lobby; he’s now discovered he was flacking for the gun manufacturers’ lobby. This experience could change Manchin and other NRA supporters.

To understand what it means that Manchin is bucking the NRA and calling its leaders liars, we have to appreciate how close he was to them. Here’s how the NRA’s Political Victory Fund announced its 2010 Manchin endorsement:

Gov. Manchin is a lifelong hunter and sportsman and as West Virginia's governor, he signed Castle Doctrine legislation into law to restore the right to self-defense in a person's home and property along with legislation to increase reciprocity for right-to-carry permit holders in West Virginia.  He also signed Emergency Powers legislation into law that prohibits gun confiscation during states of emergency as happened after Hurricane Katrina; No-Net-Loss of hunting lands into law that ensures adequate access to public hunting land; and a bill to prevent anti-gun New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun dealer entrapment schemes.

Joe Manchin's support for individual gun ownership rights has earned him an "A" rating and endorsement from the NRA-PVF….We ask all West Virginia gun owners, hunters and NRA members to vote Joe Manchin for U.S. Senate on November 2nd.

Gun control proponents have to be in it for the long haul. It’s depressing that even the Manchin-Toomey compromise looks likely to fail in the Senate, but this is the beginning of a movement, not the end.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Background Checks Gun Control Joe Manchin National Rifle Association Wayne Lapierre