Terrance Heath

God, Guns, Gays & Conservatism's Slow Grift

Filed By Terrance Heath | January 17, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: gun owners, guns, NRA

President Obama signed a broad array of executive orders yesterday to curb gun violence, in what was the boldest Presidential action against gun violence since the Clinton administration. In a speech that recalled the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Col., and even invoked Ronald Reagan, the president called on Congress to act and Americans to demand action on legislation to ban assault rifles and limit high-capacity magazines.

guns-orange.jpgYesterday's executive actions, and the administration's support for new gun-control legislation are the result of the work Vice President Joe Biden's gun task force during the 33 days since a gunman shot and killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Even before the president's announcement, Nation Rifle Association president David Keene predicted that a new ban on assault rifles will probably not pass Congress.

Keene may have a point - one that is not lost on the White House or many in Congress. The NRA has earned a reputation for being one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. But whose interests does the NRA represent? Whom does the NRA really serve? The answer to those questions suggests that the NRA is part of a decades-long God, guns, and gays grift that conservatives have perpetrated against its own supporters.

We Do Absolutely Everything They Ask And We Never Cross Them

For decades, the NRA has turned its deep pockets against friend and foe alike, in the service of an interpretation of the second amendment that would turn the entire country into the wild west, and transform public spaces - from public schools to shopping malls -into modern-day versions of the OK Corral. Members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, have long feared the consequences of not towing the NRA line.

Even cabinet members are not immune. Just last year the NRA used its influence to get a majority of the House to vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Even as more than 100 Democrats walked off the floor in protest of the vote, 17 Democrats voted with the Majority. All but one of those 17 Democrats had been endorsed by the NRA.

House Republicans contended that the historic vote (the first African-American attorney general became the first cabinet member ever cited for contempt) was over Holder's refusal to turn over internal documents related to "Fast and Furious" - beyond the 7,000 he'd already submitted. But the NRA became one of the prime movers in the contempt vote, when it announced that would put the vote on its annual scorecard, and use it to to determine future endorsements.

Why did the NRA want Holder cited for contempt? Before the "Sandy Hook Truthers" (sadly, they exist, as did "Tucson Truthers" before them), there were "Fast and Furious Truthers" who contended that "Fast and Furious" was actually launched by the Obama administration - a scheme cooked up by no less than Holder himself - to create support for implementing gun control.

Crazy as it sounds, that club has some high profile members. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said as much to ABC News in an interview last June, in which Issa basically doubled down on similar he made at an NRA convention in April. In June, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre posted a letter on the organization's website, accusing President Obama of employing "grand strategy to use Mexican drug cartel crime as an excuse to advance their gun control agenda, shut down law-abiding gun stores and rip the Second Amendment right out of our Bill of Rights."

Naturally, Republicans bought into the NRA's conspiracy theorizing. And rest assured, those 16 Democrats who voted to cite Holder for contempt knew well the consequences of voting any other way.

Look at what happened to former Tennessee state Rep. Debra Maggart. Maggart, former chair of the Republican caucus in the Tennessee House of Representatives and a lifetime member of the NRA, had always enjoyed an A+ rating with the organization. That all changed when Maggart declined to support a bill that would have permitted Tennesseans to keep guns inside their locked cars.

Former chair of the Republican caucus in the Tennessee House of Representatives Debra Maggart joined HuffPost Live Tuesday to tell her story of being "bullied" by the NRA during her 2012 primary race in which she was defeated. Maggart, a lifetime member of the NRA and a politician who "always had an A+ rating" from the gun lobby, declined to support a bill earlier this year that would permit Tennesseans to keep guns inside locked cars and soon became a target of the NRA. As Maggart describes it, "When they didn't get what they wanted, they turned on someone anyone would have considered a friend."

"They made me an example," she said of the NRA, which according to Maggart, spent $155,000 to defeat her, with ads that linked her to President Obama on gun control. "If you're a state legislative member, you definitely need to be concerned about this, because I know that they did this in Georgia, and they've done this in Alabama, where they came after state House and state Senate members, and that kind of money can really make an impact in a state legislative race."

Once the NRA turned on Maggart, not even the backing of the Tennessee Republican Party's heaviest hitters could save her. If the NRA comes down that hard on one of its own, in a state-level race, it's not hard to imagine what it would do to members of Congress who stray even a little from the "firearms fundamentalism" the NRA demands. Members in swing districts, and those who want to portray themselves to voters as conservative, want to preserve their good ratings with the NRA. They have to, if they want to stay in Congress.

The fear that the NRA has instilled in legislators and policymakers enabled it to wield considerable influence, and not just to block new gun control legislation. Since the 1990s, the NRA has used its influence in Congress to block scientific research on gun violence. NRA-backed legislators introduced amendments attacking researchers and institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and slashing funding for studying the impact of firearms to a fraction of what it was before.

On Wednesday, the president showed no fear as he declared "We don't benefit from ignorance" and signed an executive order directing the CDC to other scientific agencies to research the cause and prevention of gun violence, and called on Congress to approve funding for such research.

The NRA has even targeted judicial nominees to pack the courts with gun-friendly judges. Besides attempting to keep justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan off the Supreme Court, the organization went after Senators who voted for the two Obama appointees. One such example was Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R).

That didn't keep the two off the court, obviously, but the NRA had an impact. One of the handful of senators to vote for Kagan and Sotomayor was Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana. He had a long supportive association with the gun lobby. But when he came up for election in 2012, Elliott notes, the NRA poured $200,000 into the primary coffers of his tea party-backed primary challenger Richard Mourdock, who won. Given other issues, including Lugar's age and his having effectively moved permanently to Washington during his 36 years in the Senate, Mourdock probably would have won anyway, but that NRA money didn't hurt.

The NRA hasn't just targeted the high court. It has successfully blocked the appointment of lower court judges.

An anonymous Democratic staffer explained to GQ reporter Reid Cherlin the extent of the NRA's power on Capitol Hill:

I asked a Democratic legislative staffer for a first-person description of the NRA's power on the Hill. Here's the response I got, on the condition that I not provide any further identifying information. It's pretty breathtaking.

We do absolutely anything they ask and we never cross them - which includes asking permission to cosponsor any bills endorsed by the Humane Society (the answer is usually no) and complying with their demand to oppose the DISCLOSE Act, neither of which have anything to do with guns. They've completely shut down the debate over gun control. It's really incredible.

I'm not sure when we decided that a Democrat in a marginal district who loses his A rating from the NRA automatically loses reelection. Because it's not like we do everything other partisan organizations like the Chamber [of Commerce] or [National Association of Manufacturers] tell us to ...

Pandering to the NRA is the probably worst part of my job. I can justify the rest of it - not just to keep the seat, but because I believe most of the positions he takes are consistent with what his constituents want. But sucking up to the NRA when something like Colorado happens is hard to stomach.

Follow The Money

How did the NRA come to wield such power? Whose interest does the NRA serve with that power? The answer, like so much else in Washington, comes down to three simple words: Follow the money.

The NRA poured $24 million into political campaigns in 2012, much of it into state legislative races like Debra Maggart’s. The Huffington Post recently reported that a lot of the NRA’s money comes from firearms industry.

NRA

Throughout its 142-year history, the National Rifle Association has portrayed itself as an advocate for the individual gun owner's Second Amendment rights. In turn, the NRA relied on those gun owners, especially its 4 million or so members, to pressure lawmakers into carrying out its anti-gun control agenda.

In the last two decades, however, the deep-pocketed NRA has increasingly relied on the support of another constituency: the $12-billion-a-year gun industry, made up of manufacturers and sellers of firearms, ammunition, and related wares. That alliance was sealed in 2005, when Congress, after heavy NRA lobbying, approved a measure that gave gunmakers and gun distributors broad, and unprecedented, immunity from a wave of liability lawsuits related to gun violence in America's cities.

It was a turning point for both the NRA and the industry, both of which recognized the mutual benefits of a partnership. That same year, the NRA also launched a lucrative new fundraising drive to secure "corporate partners" that's raked in millions from the gun industry to boost its operations.

But that alliance, which has grown even closer in recent years — and includes ties both financial and personal, a Huffington Post examination has found — has led to mounting questions from gun-control advocates about the NRA’s priorities. Is the nation's most potent gun lobby mainly looking out for its base constituency, the estimated 80 million Americans who own a firearm? Or is it acting on behalf of those that make and sell those guns?

A number of polls and surveys shows a wide gap between the NRA lobbyists’ agenda and concerns of the organization’s and even its own members. An August 2012 poll by GOP pollster Frank Lunt (PDF) showed that:

  • 74 percent of NRA members support mandatory background checks
  • 69 percent of NRA members support closing the gun show  loophole
  • 82 percent of NRA members support prohibiting people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns
  • 79 percent of NRA members support requiring gun owners to tell the police if their guns are lost or stolen

These are all positions that the NRA and its gun-industry constituents oppose.

The president did not shy away from addressing both the NRA’s mission to protect gun-industry revenues, or the gap between its mission and what its own members want.

If you want to buy a gun, whether it's from a licensed dealer, or a private seller, you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one. This is common sense. And an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with us on the need for universal background checks, including more than 70 percent of the National Rifle Association's members according to one survey. So there's no reason we can't do this.

... This will be difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they'll do everything they can to block any commonsense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.

The Gun Grift

If the NRA has relied on gunmakers to keep the money rolling in, and on its rank-and-file membership to burnish its image as advocate for hunters, sportsmen, and gun-owning everyday Americans. While NRA lobbyists serve as the voice of and act on behalf of the “corporate persons” in the firearms industry in Washington, it relies on those everyday gun-owning Americans to serve as the NRA’s public face and voice, even as it scares them into thinking the government is going to confiscate their guns, and asks them to dig deep to help the NRA keep that from happening.

Four years ago LaPierre dusted off and embellished his Clinton-era prediction, arguing that if Barack Obama were elected, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity would be silenced, and "civil disarmament" would be implemented through a United Nations gun-ban treaty. Needless to say, that didn't happen, but LaPierre now says it's only because Obama and his advisers decided prior to his election to forgo implementation of the dastardly plan and instead "hatched a conspiracy of public deception to guarantee his re-election in 2012." According to LaPierre, Obama still plans to "erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution" in a second term, when he will turn "American's guns into international soup cans and park benches." Exactly when that will transpire, and whether Obama will repeal the Second Amendment with a two-thirds vote of the Senate or simply forgo that constitutional formality and resort to extralegal means, remains unclear. LaPierre only says that Obama is "just waiting for the moment to strike."

The only way to avert this calamity, the NRA's 4 million members are told in daily email alerts, the organization's various magazines and regular fundraising appeals, is if they all dig deep into their pockets and send money to the NRA. "This is the most dangerous election of our lifetime," screams the April cover of America's First Freedom, the NRA's flagship publication, showing a stern, pinch-lipped LaPierre. The battle cry for this year's campaign to defeat Obama is "All In," a poker metaphor designed to convey the idea that the stakes couldn't be higher. This election, LaPierre wrote in First Freedom, "will decide whether Americans remain free" and, "That's why NRA is 'All In' for the 2012 election, and why you must be 'All In' with the NRA."

In fact the NRA asks its rank-and-file members to “dig deeper” than its own executives do.

But the "all" in "all in" apparently doesn't include LaPierre or any of the NRA's other top executives. In fact, when it comes to putting his money "in," LaPierre, who earns nearly $1 million a year at the NRA, invariably folds his cards. During his 20 years as NRA CEO, LaPierre's name hasn't shown up once in government reports of contributors to NRA political action committees. (The Federal Election Commission requires public reporting of all contributions of $200 or more.) In 2003, when the organization was $100 million in the red and LaPierre was pleading with members to donate to a "war chest" to deal with a "full-blown legislative assault" by "gun banners," he himself donated nothing to the NRA's Political Victory Fund, the group's political action committee. He again gave nothing to the PAC in the 2008 election, despite his claim that Obama would confiscate hunting rifles and "ban use of firearms for home defense" (a charge Politifact.com labeled "intentionally dishonest"). LaPierre, who has signed off on scores of fundraising appeals to NRA members to help defeat "gun-hating politicians" and elect lawmakers endorsed by the NRA, has also elected not to contribute to those campaigns. His last contribution to an NRA-backed candidate was a whopping $500 back in 2002.

Last week, when the Freedomworks meltdown was in the news, Alex Pareene characterized the whole conservative movement as “an elaborate money-making venture.” That’s as applicable to the NRA as any other conservative organization.

The conservative media movement exists primarily as a moneymaking venture. As Rick Perlstein explained in the Baffler, some of the largest conservative media organs are essentially massive email lists of suckers rented to snake oil salesmen. The con isn't limited to a couple of newsletters and websites: The most prominent conservative organizations in the nation are primarily dedicated to separating conservatives from their money.

FreedomWorks, which is funded primarily by very rich people, solicits donations from non-rich conservative people. More than 80,000 people donated money to FreedomWorks in 2012, and it seems likely that only a small minority of those people were hedge-fund millionaires. And what are people who donate to this grassroots conservative organization funded mostly by a few very rich people getting for their hard-earned money? In addition to paying Dick Armey $400,000 a year for 20 years to stay away, FreedomWorks also apparently spent more than a million dollars paying Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to say nice things about FreedomWorks, in order to convince listeners to send FreedomWorks money that FreedomWorks would then give to Limbaugh and Beck. It's a pretty simple con. Beck, meanwhile, also has a subscriber-based media operation, in which people pay his company money for access to programs where Beck expresses opinions that he was paid to hold. He also spent years telling everyone to buy gold from a company that pays him and defrauds consumers.

As Armey admitted to Media Matters, FreedomWorks at this point essentially raises money for the sake of raising money. It exists to bilk "activists." Armey at least has the courtesy to be embarrassed by this…

... This complete contempt for the audience is unique to the right-wing press - if the Huffington Post made its money selling snake oil, liberals would complain. The recent trickle of complaints about the major nonprofit money-making groups, like FreedomWorks and CrossroadsUSA, has come solely because those groups failed to win the election. If Romney, or even a couple of Senate candidates, had won, no one would mind that the two groups enriched their boards of directors on the backs of tens of thousands of small donors. Right-wing reaction to Armey's admission to Media Matters has thus far been outrage ... that Armey talked to Media Matters.

Out of Ammo

It’s unlikely that the NRA’s grift will provoke anymore outrage than FreedomWork’s or any other right-wing organizations whose members are basically “marks.” But in a post-Sandy Hook America, there are signs that the NRA may be running out of ammunition.

For starters, the NRA had almost no impact on the election.  The NRA got lousy returns on the the money it spent on the 2012 election. Barack Obama handily won reelection, and  two-thirds of the House incumbents who lost their seats were NRA-backed. The NRA PAC had a a 10.74 percent success rate: Of the money it spent, only about 0.83 percent went to winning candidates. Planned Parenthood, by comparison, spent about as much as the NRA PAC and had a 98 percent success rate.

The NRA isn’t terribly popular right now.   A recent poll revealed that just 42 percent of voters view the NRA positively, while 45 percent have an unfavorable view - a 10 point drop from the week before Wayne LaPierre’s belligerent post-Sandy Hook press conference.

After a year in which Americans absorbed more than a dozen mass shootings, it seemed we’d almost become inure to regular reports of carnage in workplaces, shopping malls, and school hallways. The Aurora shooting didn’t catalyze a groundswell of support for even modest gun-control measures, or even much discussion as the event faded from the headlines and our attention turned to other things. The victims were buried, the gunman jailed, and we moved on. Now, six months later, the courtroom proceedings in the case against James Holmes have caught our attention and taken on a new significance in the context of the Newtown shooting.

Our response to the slaughter of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary has thus far proven different. It’s been just over a month since Adam Lanza opened fire, killing 20 schoolchildren and six school staff, after shooting and killing his mother. But that’s the longest Americans have sustained attention and discussion after a mass shooting. It’s also the first time that we’ve approached anything resembling a consensus on even modest gun-control measures.

A Different World

While it remains to be seen what measures will finally be implemented, it’s almost certain that that the NRA will fight tooth and nail against them because the gun industry pays them to block anything that might keep gunmakers from maximizing sales numbers and profit margins. It's still one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, after all. But that fight will happen in a very different world than the one the NRA has worked for decades to create.

Other right-wing culture warriors were mugged by the reality of that new world following the election. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson seems to have given himself up to despair in his latest newsletter for his “Family Talk” radio program, saying “Nearly everything I have stood for these past 35 years went down to defeat.” National Organization for Marriage head Maggie Gallagher lost the syndicated column she wrote for 17 years, and afterward reflected that “Culture wars are struggles over who has the power to ‘name reality.’ We are getting swamped in this war.”

Today, the president called on Americans to use our power to “name reality,” and to envision something vastly different than the America the NRA and the gun industry want to see.

Caution: School Crossing

... I will try very hard. But she's right. The most important changes we can make depend on Congressional action. They need to bring these proposals up for a vote, and the American people need to make sure that they do. Get them on record. Ask your members of Congress if they support universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ask them if they support renewing a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

And if they say no, ask them why not. Ask them, what's more important: Doing whatever it takes to get a — an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns? Or giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?

... This is the land of the free, and it always will be. As Americans we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us. But we've also long recognized, as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities.

Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other. We have the right to worship freely and safely; that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisc. The right to assemble peacefully; that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Ore., and moviegoers in Aurora, Colo.

That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high-school students at Columbine, and elementary-school students in Newtown and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate, and all the families who never imagined they'd lose a loved one to — to a bullet - those rights are at stake. We're responsible.

For decades, conservatives culture warriors have marched to victory under the banner of “God, Guns, and Gays.” But in that span of time, Americans have seized the power to “name reality” in matters of faith and issues like marriage equality. That reality means defeat for the likes of James Dobson and Maggie Gallagher. They have won many battles - far too many. But even the staunched culture warriors are beginning to acknowledge that they've lost the war.

No doubt, the National Rifle Association will fight to the last to protect the interests and profit margins of their true constituents - gunmakers. But they will likely face opposition like they haven’t faced in decades if enough Americans are outraged by the endless violence, and enough NRA members and gun owners are outraged at being grifted by the NRA, and that outrage leads to the kind of organized action that the president called for yesterday.

(Gun graphic via Bigstock)


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