After losing hard-fought battles in the
Senate last month, the NRA, Americas powerful gun lobby, recovered lost ground when
the House Friday first weakened, then killed altogether, its own attempt at gun
The vote underscored the formidable clout of the lobby, which
many lawmakers consider the best in the business, and frustrated gun control advocates who
failed to push through a modest agenda, even after the Columbine school massacre.
The NRA got its traction back, commented Robert
Spitzer, a gun politics expert at the State University of New York at Cortland.
Our members, I think, are the most dedicated grass roots lobby in the country,
said NRA lobbyist James Baker. When they perceive their rights to be threatened,
The NRA spent $1.5 million in the past month to make sure the
House did not follow the Senate, he said, and has attracted 50,000 more new members than
it attracts in a typical month.
The gun policy fight is not over, though. Senate and House youth
crime bills must still be melded, and Democrats will probably try to attach gun control
measures to all sorts of unrelated legislation in the weeks to come. But Fridays
votes were definitely a turning point.
With the NRAs money and grass-roots ardor, gun votes are
extremely hard for senators. They are even harder in the House, where members face
reelection every two years in relatively homogenous districts where the NRA can swing a
Both parties acknowledge that, after the Democratic-led Congress
enacted the Brady Law and the assault weapons ban, the NRA had a hand in the Republican
takeover of Congress in 1994.
They are just notorious for making life miserable for people who oppose them,
One Democrat who lost his seat in 1994 but regained it in 1998 is
Jay Inslee of Washington state. He voted against the gun lobby again Friday.
It was bitter and it was painful but I have not regretted
that vote for one second, he said of 1994. He predicted he would not pay the same
price this time because the world has changed since 1994. America is tired of
burying its children.
Representing a Michigan district full of marksmen and hunters,
Democrat Bart Stupak also wrestled with this vote. A former cop, NRA member and a
life-long gun owner, he finally voted against the NRA.
This is the right vote, he said simply, knowing it
could cost him his seat.
Not Just Republicans
Democrats who had been railing at the NRA-backed Republicans lost political ground when
one of their own, John Dingell of Michigan, the longest-serving Democrat in the House,
teamed up with hard-line conservative Republicans.
That Dingell voted with the NRA is no surprisehes
been doing so since coming to Congress in 1955. But his proudly defiant seizure of the
issue diluted the Democratic message and infuriated some of his colleagues.
He brought 44 other Democrats with hima smaller pro-gun
contingent than on some past votes. In contrast, just 33 Republicans, mostly moderates
from suburban districts on the two coasts, also voted for a Democratic alternative that
resembled the Senate legislation. That is fewer Republicans than voted for the Brady bill
six years ago.
The Republican conference has become more conservative, and
more extreme, said Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has been prominent in
the gun control fight.
Going Against the
Poll after poll has shown that the public does favor tighter gun lawsaround 80
percent for most measures short of a handgun ban. But their voices are not heard as loudly
as the ardent and organized chorus of the NRA.
For a time last month, the voices were heard. When the Senate
initially voted for a voluntary system of checks at gun shows, authored by a senator who
serves on the NRA board, Senate offices got a morning-after earful from furious
constituents. The Senate flipped and flopped for a week, and finally approved several new
The debate then moved to the House. Democrats pushed to hold the
vote immediately, building on the Senate momentum, but Republican leaders put it off for
The NRA geared up, and the public geared down. Grass-roots
anti-gun groups say they have attracted new supporters since Littleton, which they hope
will help them in the long run. But they are no match for the NRA.
Two months have passed since Littleton and the outrage has
receded, said Spitzer.
The degree of public outrage, public concern over Littleton
was greater than with any similar school incident but the pattern is always the
same, he said. Attention turns away. Schools are letting out, summer is
beginning and the public is turning its attention to other things.