Obama should blame tea party, not NRA, for gun control defeat

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, before delivering remarks on the Senate's failure to pass a compromise plan expanding background checks on firearms sales, April 17, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • According to conservative staffers, Gun Owners of America was the most active outside group in efforts to block gun control.

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  • The Obama account is wrong in part because it portrays the NRA as calling all the shots within the GOP on guns.

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  • The NRA's real power is its large and passionate membership of 3 million to 4.5 million.

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President Obama, according to his own telling, would have passed a gun control bill supported by nearly every American, but the National Rifle Association drove in trucks full of money and lobbyists, buying off senators.

Obama's story isn't true. The NRA doesn't work like the lobbies Obama is coziest with. And the NRA also wasn't the tip of the spear in the gun-rights fight this month. Here is the way things really went down:

The gun-rights resistance on Capitol Hill began in late March with two first-term Tea Party senators declaring they would filibuster consideration of the gun-control bill. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid explaining they would oppose invoking cloture on the "motion to proceed" to the bill. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., soon joined them.

That rump of three senators expanded to a platoon of 18 who eventually signed onto the letter. In the end, 29 Republicans and two Democrats opposed proceeding to the bill -- well short of the 41 needed for a filibuster. Many allies criticized this failed filibuster, but its leaders argue it was crucial to eventual victory.

"After you get the 29" votes to filibuster, one conservative staffer put it, "you know who to beat up." The filibuster effort, by this telling, was something of a whip count by a guerilla unit of conservative freshmen.

So Lee, Cruz, and Paul -- and their staffs -- set out to work on those Republicans who were less than firm. Almost the entire GOP conference was pretty strong in opposing the Democrats' more Draconian gun control proposals -- such as an assault weapons ban -- but the conservative rump didn't want any new regulations on gun ownership by law-abiding citizens. Cruz, along with almost every other Republican, signed on to an alternative bill by Sen. Charles Grassley, which mostly beefed up the current federal database behind background checks.

Anything more ambitious was a nonstarter in the eyes of Cruz, Paul and Lee. Specifically, they rejected the proposal by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to create a mandatory universal background check. Toomey-Manchin was the only real chance Obama had of passing a gun control bill. If that went down, gun control went down.

According to conservative staffers, Gun Owners of America was the most active outside group in early efforts to block all gun control efforts including Toomey-Manchin. As GOA and conservative senators worked to close GOP ranks, the NRA came in to seal the deal.

So, the Obama account is wrong in part because it portrays the NRA as calling all the shots within the GOP on guns. But it seems it was Cruz, Lee and Paul who drew the line, and then the NRA came in to hold that line.

But here's the other way Obama misrepresents the NRA's role in this gun control fight: The NRA doesn't function like corporate lobbies, which lean on an army of highly paid, revolving-door lobbyists from K Street firms.

In the first quarter of this year, the NRA spent $700,000 on lobbying, slightly less than the American Forest & Paper Association spent.

The NRA's political action committee is large -- it spent about $19 million last election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with nearly $1 million going directly to candidates and about $12 million in independent expenditures. Only a couple dozen PACs are larger.

But the NRA's real power is its large and passionate membership of 3 million to 4.5 million. "What [lawmakers] value is the endorsement," NRA President David Keene tells me, "not the check. ... Voters who vote on Second Amendment issues look to the NRA for leadership on that."

All NRA members get a monthly magazine. Every election year, the November issue (which arrives in October) includes an insert grading candidates in all the races for that ZIP code, from state legislator up to president. Many members take that insert to the ballot box with them.

Most Republican lawmakers, especially those who came up through state politics, have had to deal with the NRA. It's on their minds.

On April 10, the NRA wrote all U.S. senators a letter declaring "the NRA will oppose any amendments offered to S. 649 that restrict fundamental Second Amendment freedoms," explictly including Toomey-Manchin. "[V]otes on all anti-gun amendments or proposals will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations."

That clinched it. On the Toomey-Manchin amendment, Republicans set a 60-vote threshold, and 46 senators voted no.

So Obama has reason to be upset with the NRA. But his real enemies are the Tea Party, which brought in unruly conservatives, and the NRA's membership.

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