The Media Myth Of NRA Electoral Dominance Should End With 2012

Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

In yet another year plagued by horrific instances of gun violence, the media was quick to react to tragedies by labeling gun violence prevention efforts futile on the basis of the alleged ability of the National Rifle Association to ruin the political careers of anyone who dared to stand in the way of its anti-gun regulation agenda. 

Earlier this year, Slate's Brian Palmer typified this narrative with an article titled "Why Is The NRA So Powerful?" that suggested that the pro-gun organization "considered by many the most powerful lobbying group in the country" can "reliably deliver votes." In the wake of the Newtown school massacre, Slate republished the article verbatim. Also following the Newtown massacre, NBC's David Gregory and Fox News' Chris Wallace both suggested that politicians who favored gun violence prevention measures would face serious reprisals.

In making these claims, the media simply advanced a years old narrative suggesting the NRA wields unlimited political power without citing any actual evidence for that position. In fact, 2012 was a year full of indicators that the extent of NRA influence has been wildly exaggerated. The media should keep this in mind as they prepare to cover the NRA's press conference this morning responding to the Newtown massacre.

During the past year, the National Rifle Association was abandoned by political and business allies and spent nearly $18 million in a failed attempt to keep supporters of gun violence prevention out of Congress and the White House.

Even as the NRA's brand was deemed toxic by the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative "model legislation" group, and faced withering criticism in the wake of the Newtown school massacre, the media myth has persisted that the NRA has the capability to punish politicians who oppose its extreme agenda.

NRA's Support For "Kill At Will" Laws Too Extreme For ALEC

Although the NRA had worked with ALEC for decades to advance weak gun laws in state legislatures across the nation, backlash against the NRA-supported "Kill At Will" law connected to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin led ALEC to eliminate its NRA-chaired committee that had helped enact variations of the law across the country.

After neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on February 26, controversy quickly surrounded Florida's "Kill At Will" self-defense law, which is termed "Stand Your Ground" by its proponents. Law enforcement initially cited the law as the reason why Zimmerman was not arrested, and legal experts and reporters demonstrated how "Kill At Will" could offer legal protection to individuals who used deadly force under seemingly criminal circumstances.

On March 21, Media Matters revealed that the NRA -- whose lobbyist was instrumental in enacting Florida's 2005 "Kill At Will" law -- had used its position as co-chair of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections Task Force to push "Kill At Will" as model legislation nationwide. A media firestorm ensued, with progressive organizations led by Center for Media and Democracy, Color of Change, ProgressNow, Common Cause, and People for the American Way using the ALEC-NRA link to encourage businesses to cut ties with the model legislation organization. 

While ALEC's top corporate sponsors initially stayed silent as a growing number pundits, politicians and advocacy organizations weighed in on ALEC's role in advancing "Kill At Will," the movement reached a tipping point with the departure of Coca-Cola on April 4. Other large corporations followed suit in cutting ties with ALEC including Mars, Inc., Kraft, Wendy's, and McDonald's. 

On April 17, ALEC announced that it was eliminating the Public Safety and Elections Task Force that had pushed "Kill At Will" nationwide. Still, corporations continued to drop out in light of the public relations disaster created by the NRA-backed task force. Among those that subsequently departed: Blue Cross Blue Shield, YUM! Brands, Procter & Gamble, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, Dell Computers, MillerCoors, Hewlett-Packard, Best Buy, General Motors, Walgreens, General Electric, Sprint Nextel, Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

The NRA was reportedly furious with ALEC's decision to eliminate the task force. On April 23, CNN contributor Erick Erickson reported that an NRA representative admonished ALEC during that week's conservative roundtable hosted by NRA board member and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist. According to Erickson, the NRA accused ALEC of "run[ning] away from the fight." The ALEC representative reportedly responded by complaining that the NRA had refused to help push back against criticism of "Kill At Will."

For its part, the NRA has not backed down on "Kill At Will." On the one-month anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death, the NRA deployed a lobbyist to the Alaska legislature and urged its members to support the passage of "Kill At Will." During the NRA's annual meeting, held in St. Louis, Missouri in April, top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox vowed to defend "Kill At Will" laws while NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre accused the media of "manufactur[ing] controversy for ratings" in covering Trayvon Martin's killing.

Testifying before a Florida task force to examine its "Kill At Will" law on October 16, Marion Hammer, a past president and current lobbyist for the NRA, reiterated that the NRA was "proud to have been a part of the process" in enacting "Kill At Will."

The NRA's Toothless "All In" Campaign To Defeat Obama Fails

In February, after spending much of 2011 advancing a hysterical conspiracy theory about a supposed plot by President Obama to "destroy the Second Amendment" during his second term, the NRA announced an "All In" campaign to defeat Obama. In the end, the NRA spent more than $18 million -- including nearly $12 million on the presidential race -- on the 2012 elections to little effect.

In a February column for the NRA publication America's 1st Freedom titled "All In!" LaPierre compared in vivid detail deaths of 250,000 people who perished in a 2004 tsunami in South Asia to the prospect of a second Obama term.

In the months leading up to Election Day, the NRA spent tens of millions of dollars on independent expenditures supporting a cast of largely Republican NRA endorsees while also spending to oppose the candidates in favor of gun violence prevention.

Candidates backed by the NRA fared poorly on Election Day. The NRA Political Victory Fund and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent over $12 million trying to defeat the president. Obama was comfortably re-elected. More than 95 percent of the more than $18 million the NRA spent on federal elections went to races where the NRA-backed candidate lost on Election Day. The PVF in particular was one of the most ineffective outside spenders during the 2012 elections. 

The NRA also failed to garner Congressional victories. In six of seven Senate races where the NRA spent over $100,000 on the general election, the candidate supported by the NRA lost. Of 26 House incumbents who lost their seats, 18 were endorsed by the NRA. Four of the eight defeated incumbents not endorsed by the NRA were Democrats who lost to other Democrats in California's top-two primary system.

The NRA lashed out at journalists who reported on the NRA's failure, citing the passage of hunters' rights amendments in three states as evidence of electoral success, even though the amendment was not even opposed by NRA nemesis the Humane Society. In subsequent bad news for the NRA, the results of a survey conducted by bipartisan pollsters released on November 29 found that voters trusted Obama more than Romney on the gun issue in three key swing states.

The NRA's campaign messaging was also found to be ineffective. Voters who recalled hearing from the NRA said that the material made them more favorable to Democrat Tim Kaine, who defeated NRA-backed George Allen in the Virginia Senate race. The NRA attacked the findings of the survey by lying about the poll's methodology through its media mouthpiece, NRA News.

Even after its resounding defeat in 2012, LaPierre took to NRA News to predict electoral victory in 2014, claiming that Democrats who support gun violence prevention laws will "go out on that plank" with President Obama and "the American public and the NRA will saw it right off."

NRA Goes Silent In Wake Of Newtown, Allies Flee

After a gunman used an assault rifle to kill 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, the NRA shut down its social media pages and immediately refused to comment on the tragedy. In the following days, some of the NRA's top Senate allies and business interests broke with the NRA and the gun lobby.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the NRA deleted its Facebook page and did not tweet for four days. It also remained silent on its NRA Institute for Legislative Action page during that time period, until it announced on December 18 that it will hold a news conference to address the Newtown shooting. As Slate columnist David Weigel noted, it is standard operating procedure for the NRA to remain tightlipped in the wake of high-profile shootings, although the organization usually releases a short perfunctory statement.

On December 17, two NRA A-rated Senators, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mark Warner (D-VA) called for restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The NRA vehemently opposes such restrictions. The senators were joined on December 18 by A+ rated Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) who said during an interview on MSNBC that "I think that's where we need to go with this discussion is, yes, put gun control -- more gun control -- on the table." In October, Rep. Kingston touted his NRA endorsement on his Facebook page. The same day, Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder vetoed legislation to allow concealed weapons to be carried in schools. The NRA had described the bill as "pro-Second Amendment reform legislation."

Business interests also moved to distance themselves from the gun industry, a major funder of the NRA. On December 18, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced plans to sell the gun conglomerate Freedom Group after some investors expressed concern over the firm's relationship with the gun maker. Freedom Group owns Bushmaster, the company responsible for manufacturing the assault rifle used in the Newtown mass shooting, as well as assault weapons manufacturers Remington Arms and DPMS Panther Arms.

Many of the companies that make up the Freedom Group are NRA corporate sponsors, including Remington Arms, DPMS Panther Arms, H&R Firearms, Marlin and Para USA. Since 2005, Para USA has given between $100,000 and $249,999 to the NRA. DPMS Panther gave the NRA between $50,000 and $99,999 during the same period. Remington Arms, H&R Firearms, and Marlin have also all made contributions of $25,000 to $49,999. In 2011, Remington became the sponsor of the Friends of NRA television show that airs on the Outdoor Channel.   

On December 18, firearms retailer Dick's Sporting Goods announced plans to suspend the sale of assault rifles, for the time being, in its stores. The company also said that it was pulling all firearms from the shelves of its store closest to Newtown. The same day, the Discovery Channel announced that its America's Guns show, which had been celebrated by NRA News, was cancelled with no plans to air reruns. A spokesperson for Discovery also confirmed that NRA board member Ted Nugent's gun culture special Ted Nugent's Gun Country "would definitely not be returning to the Discovery Channel." Nugent had previously claimed that the Discovery Channel "want[s] to do [the special] as a regular feature."

Conservatives in media also distanced themselves from the NRA's opposition to firearms restrictions. On December 14, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch used his Twitter account to ask, "When will politicians find the courage to ban automatic weapons?" Joe Scarborough, a former top NRA rated Republican congressman and current MSNBC host, delivered a 10-minute monologue concerning the Newtown massacre on the December 17 edition of Morning Joe. Scarborough called for the end of the "proliferation of combat-styled weapons" and said, "Politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo. They must be instead forced to defend our children."

The tone even changed on Fox News, where calls for increased gun regulation are routinely attacked. Fox News contributor Peter Johnson Jr., who is considered to be the on-air mouthpiece of network CEO Roger Ailes, expressed support for an assault weapons ban and stated on the December 18 edition of Fox & Friends  that "the government has the right to register and regulate ... firearms."

On December 19, President Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden will head an effort to curb gun violence in the United States. Specific policy proposals will be revealed in January. The White House has already indicated support for mandatory background checks and an assault weapons ban. Both of these proposals are popular with the public at large, but not the NRA. 

Going forward, especially as the group responds to the Newtown massacre, the media should be careful to not buy into the myth that the NRA can effectively threaten politicians who support such popular gun violence prevent measures, given the paucity of evidence to support such a conclusion.

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