WASHINGTON — Gun-control advocates are hoping to use the turmoil that’s engulfed the National Rifle Association this summer to make gains in their cause from coast to coast, but they know it won’t be a quick — or easy — legislative brawl.
Just last week three NRA board members resigned after complaining the pro-gun group’s administrators weren’t being honest with them about the group’s plummeting finances, which watchdog group Open Secrets has shown dropped from more than $163 million in 2016 to $128 million in 2017.
Earlier in the summer, the group lost its top lobbyist and was forced to shut down its media arm NRATV. Now it's coping with revelations that CEO Wayne LaPierre wanted the nonprofit to buy him a $6 million French-style mansion on a Dallas golf course.
Now that last weekend’s deadly gun violence — from El Paso to Dayton to Chicago, where 25 were shot within four hours on Sunday alone — have thrust America’s permissive gun laws back into the national debate, gun-control advocates see an opening to continue expanding their power.
Still, advocates know they face an uphill battle, especially because in the wake of these shootings President Trump blamed violent video games and mental health issues for what advocates argue come down to loose firearm laws.
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“It sounded very similar to the rhetoric we’ve heard from the NRA for so long,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, told VICE News.
In the 2018 midterm elections, more than 1,000 gun-reform candidates won nationwide, which helped flip the makeup of the U.S. House along with seven state legislatures and gun-control groups outspent the NRA, and they’re arguing they aren’t going to let up.
Gun-reformers aren’t spiking the football just yet.
“They’ve spent decades building up more than just a lobbying operation — building up a culture.”
“They’ve spent decades building up more than just a lobbying operation — building up a culture. A culture of resentment…it’s really poisonous for the debate,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “The notion that if you favor universal background checks, you’re a black helicopter, gun grabber. That’s what they did, and hopefully over time, that begins to erode some.”
Still, gun-control advocates argue they’re seeing gains, with some moderate Republicans in the House backing some modest reform proposals this session like on expanding background checks or increasing funding to study gun violence.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) got behind “red flag” laws, which now also has the support of Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who, after the shooting in Dayton, is also calling for expanding background checks for most gun sales.
But some Republicans have stood up to the NRA in recent years, like former GOP Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who ushered changes through their states in the wake of mass shootings on their soil. And in Congress, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) to try to expand the nation’s current background check laws.
Toomey won re-election in spite of the NRA opposing what became the Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013. They stopped donating to him, cut ads for him, and dropped his rating from an “A” to a “C,” which Toomey told VICE News was a shame.
“I think some of their political juice has been mischaracterized over the years,” Toomey said. “A big part of the reason that they have a lot of influence is they represent a lot of people who feel strongly about the issue. The NRA doesn’t conjure up that sentiment and they don’t create it – they reflect it.”
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The NRA did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this piece.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have been sensing the momentum turning in their favor on this issue, especially since the Parkland High School survivors captivated the nation’s imagination which proponents say led to the gun-rights group seeing its revenue plummet. And they hope to capitalize on these new dynamics going forward.
“The NRA is in turmoil because their members are leaving them. So all of a sudden they don’t have as much money as they used to spread around all their consultants and executives, because they’re hemorrhaging members,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol this summer. “So it’s not just that the board is in disarray; it’s that people are leaving the NRA in droves. And that is a sign of the long-term weakness of the gun lobby.”
That’s why they’re already gearing up for 2020 now.
“I think guns are going to be a very important defining issue in swing districts,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be a turnout issue to young people, it’s going to be a persuasion issue for suburban parents. One of the top three or four issues in 2020.”
Even the most outspoken gun-reform advocates aren’t promising an overnight sea change, but they’re also promising to keep forcing the issue into local and federal elections nationwide in order to keep momentum on their side.
“This work takes time,” Watts said. “It’s going to take several election cycles to get us to where we need to be, because you have to show lawmakers that if they do the right thing, you’ll have their backs, and if they do the wrong thing, you’ll have their job.”
Cover: A woman leans over to write a message on a cross at a makeshift memorial at the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)