WASHINGTON (AP) — Liberals have cheered the highly public legal and financial jeopardy ensnaring the National Rifle Association, seeing the gun lobby's potential demise as the path to stricter firearms laws.
But, it turns out, the NRA's message has become so solidified in the Republican Party that even if the organization implodes from allegations of lavish spending and misuse of funds, its unapologetic pro-gun point of view will live on, as the heated debate increasingly shifts from Washington to the states.
Not even the shift in power to Democrats in the White House and Congress has been enough to push through new federal restrictions, and states continue to pass laws with far-reaching protections for gun owners.
Ever confident, the NRA, which is based in Fairfax, Virginia, says the suggestion it is receding is magical thinking on the left. The group promises it will emerge from its failed bankruptcy effort stronger, particularly as it seeks to relocate to the decidedly pro-gun rights state of Texas.
The durable nature of the NRA’s clout is an exemplar of how difficult it is to claw back control from an entrenched lobbying powerhouse that has planted deep roots in the American political system with money, organization and relentless messaging.
“The NRA built up an impressive mountain of power over the course of 40 years. And despite their recent fall from grace, that power doesn't disappear overnight,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in an interview.
Not to say there is no hope for gun control — far from it, said Murphy, whose own views are shaped by the massacre of 20 children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, and the subsequent, successful effort by the NRA to stop gun legislation in the aftermath.
He said Democratic gains in Congress, despite the efforts by the NRA to stop candidates, are one measure of a change in the dynamic. Another is a shift in some public opinion. A Gallup poll in 2019 found the percentage of people viewing the NRA favorably dropping below 50% for only the second time in three decades.
“There’s no doubt that their political muscle is reduced,” Murphy said, adding that the Georgia special elections for U.S. Senate, won by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in January, are a clear indication of that. "Democrats who support universal background checks are winning all over the country, including in states where you would have thought the NRA had a stranglehold.”
One of Biden’s first executive orders was on gun control. On Monday, the Justice Department announced model legislation for red-flag laws, which permit police to ask for the removal of firearms from people who may present a danger to themselves or others.
In March, the House passed two bills requiring background checks on all firearms sales and transfers and allowing an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases. But the legislation faces strong headwinds in the Senate, with some Republican support required for passage.
At the same time, though, the NRA has been growing, with 225,000 additional dues-paying members since January. It has more than 5 million members overall — an increase — but its numbers are still down from what it said were 6 million members in 2018. Its embattled leader, Wayne LaPierre, has led the fundraising efforts for nearly three decades, selling himself as an aggressive guardian of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
He positioned the lobby as the major antagonizer of Democratic administrations. Then, in 2016, the organization spent more than $30 million on behalf of Donald Trump's campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data. The effort paid off — after back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump seemed inclined to take action on extensive background checks but backed off after a phone call with the NRA.