PBS' NRA Documentary Pushes Myth Of The Gun Group's Invincibility

PBS' Frontline documentary on the history of the National Rifle Association pushed the common media myth that the gun organization always wins and told the debunked story of how the NRA was supposedly responsible for the defeat of Al Gore in 2000.

On January 6, Frontline aired the hour-long feature Gunned Down: The Power Of The NRA, which was directed by filmmaker Michael Kirk. The documentary covered the history of the NRA from when the group began to become politicized in the 1960s through legislative efforts in 2013 following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Gunned Down overstates the ability of the NRA to influence election outcomes. The gun group's influence on federal gun legislation is often credited to the theory that politicians who oppose the NRA will be defeated when running for reelection. A statistical analysis of recent House and Senate races has disproven this notion. Still, mainstream news outlets often advance the myth of NRA electoral dominance.

Gunned Down repeatedly inflates the supposed strength of the gun group based on commentary from former NRA officials -- no current official would talk to Frontline -- and by citing what is considered conventional wisdom in Washington D.C.

While explaining the NRA's successful lobbying to defeat federal legislation to close the gun show loophole following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, Gunned Down turned to a former NRA spokesperson who said of the NRA's membership “if it had one political trait, they vote, it's that simple. You are a politician, you want to get elected, you want votes, NRA has votes.”

The NRA has often attempted to take credit for Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. At the gun group's annual meeting in 2002, executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre told the crowd, “You are why Al Gore isn't in the White House.”

Gunned Down gave baseless credence to these claims.

Gunned Down posits that after the 1999 battle over the gun show loophole in the Senate it was “time” for the NRA “to settle a score with a man who had broken that tie vote in the Senate, Al Gore.” The documentary showed footage of the NRA's anti-Gore efforts before airing news footage of Gore losing Ohio, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee and subsequently the presidential election.

According to the documentary's narrator, “In Washington, they say the NRA was a decisive factor in Al Gore's defeat.” That comment was immediately followed by former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman's claim that NRA activism following Columbine was “in no small measure” responsible for Bush's victory.

Although Gore losing to Bush because of the NRA is a well-worn talking point, there is no evidence that it is true.

As American Prospect senior writer Paul Waldman, who previously worked for Media Matters, explained in a 2012 article, “Any discussion of the 2000 election is complicated by the fact that the contest was so close that any of a multitude of factors could be described as decisive”:

Any discussion of the 2000 election is complicated by the fact that the contest was so close that any of a multitude of factors could be described as decisive. If Ralph Nader had not run, Al Gore almost certainly would have won, not only in Florida but in New Hampshire as well, where George W. Bush beat Gore by 7,211 votes, and Nader garnered 22,198. If the Palm Beach ballot had been designed differently, Gore would have won. Bush's final margin in Florida was a mere 537 votes, and one could probably find 537 left-handed Greek-American Red Sox fans in Florida who voted for Bush. But that hardly means that the “real” explanation for the outcome lies in the left-handed Greek-American Florida Red Sox fan vote.

According to Waldman, Gore's losses in Tennessee and other southern states are better explained by partisan trends towards Republican support rather than the influence of the NRA: “The 2000 presidential election was not an anomaly, but rather part of a steady trend away from the Democratic party in Tennessee. Bill Clinton won there in 1996 by only 2.4 points, less than he had in 1992. Gore lost there by 3.9 points, John Kerry lost in 2004 by 14.3 points, and four years later Barack Obama lost by 15.1 points.”

One 2000 study even found that Gore's position on guns offered him a slight benefit on Election Day with voters. Indeed, a 2000 survey of Tennessee voters found support for more restrictions on gun ownership outpaced support for fewer restrictions by 51 points.

Gunned Down concluded that, “In Washington, they say the NRA came out of the shootings at Sandy Hook stronger than ever,” based on the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass background check legislation following the mass shooting after opposition from the NRA.

This narrative ignores the numerous state level losses the NRA experienced in the months following the Sandy Hook shooting. According to a May 2014 analysis by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, eight states enacted “significant” legislation strengthening gun laws, compared to four states that passed “significant” legislation loosening gun laws. Additionally, Mother Jones looked at gun law changes in 2013 and found that as of December 2013, “more than 189 million” Americans live under stronger gun laws.

Recent developments which are outside of the purview of Gunned Down also disprove the notion that the NRA is “stronger than ever” following Sandy Hook. On Election Day in 2014, voters in Washington state overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to expand background checks to nearly all gun sales. The NRA also experienced a loss on the federal level as Obama surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy was confirmed in spite of a campaign by the NRA which included the promise to score votes in favor of Murthy for the group's 2016 election scorecard.