Politics

Fla. students face an NRA that’s even more powerful than before

Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press
Sheryl Acquarola, a 16 year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is overcome with emotion after the Florida lawmakers voted not to hear the bill banning assault rifles and large capacity magazines.

WASHINGTON — Chris Murphy believed Congress would ban assault weapons in the aftermath of the gruesome 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. It left 20 children and 6 educators dead, and the nation shocked.

He had some inside knowledge at the time — or so it seemed. As a new US senator from Connecticut, Murphy tracked meetings between his Republican colleagues and grieving Sandy Hook parents as they pressed for new gun control measures.

“A lot of the Sandy Hook parents were left with the impression that these senators would be supportive,” Murphy said. But when he started counting votes, the “yeses” had turned to “nos” under pressure from a potent lobbying force with a particularly tight grip on Republicans.

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“I was brand new to this movement,” Murphy, a Democrat, recalled. “I had no idea how powerful the NRA was.”

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Now, the country is again in the throes of a charged gun debate. This time, instead of grieving parents from Sandy Hook, the surviving students from the Florida high school where 17 people were gunned down this month are the ones demanding tougher gun laws.

But the teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School face long odds. Just like in the Sandy Hook aftermath, the National Rifle Association stands in their way.

And this time, by many measures, the NRA is even more powerful. The group’s strongest allies control the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

“They are taking on the Big Boys,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who has written five books on gun control policy. “They are taking on an entrenched political force that has been in many, many similar battles.”

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The NRA is known as the country’s largest gun lobby, but in reality the NRA is much more than that. It’s more of a belief system than a trade organization. It represented President Trump’s America well before Trump descended on his gilded elevator to announce his candidacy. And with 5 million dues paying members, it’s likely to be around long after he’s gone.

The group’s financial statistics are impressive.

The NRA pulled in nearly $367 million in 2016, according to the most recently available tax records — much of it from members who pay about $40 a year. During the last presidential election, the NRA spent $30 million supporting Trump.

The group also poured cash into congressional contests in 2016, spending $23 million in 86 House and Senate races. The NRA’s preferred candidate prevailed nearly 75 percent of the time, according the Center for Responsive Politics.

But these numbers don’t tell the full story. Those who’ve watched the organization closely point out that the NRA’s real power comes from its leadership role in the country’s conservative movement, with a highly sophisticated political, video production, and membership benefits program that gives a geographically diverse population a common rallying point — and a common political enemy.

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“The NRA has been under attack for at least 20 years,” said Wayne Ross, a longtime member of the NRA’s board of directors. These attacks, he said, are misdirected but have been useful.

“If you come under attack, you either weaken or get stronger,” Ross said, adding that the organization has only grown in numbers. “People don’t like to be attacked and accused of things they aren’t responsible for. . . . The NRA tries to bring [the debate] back to people who misuse guns,” he added.

Photographs of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch (left) and NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre were posted in the vendors area of the 45th annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Photographs of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch (left) and NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre were posted in the vendors area of the 45th annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

One major funder to the NRA is the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, backed by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. The group donated nearly $5 million to one arm of the NRA in 2014, according to tax documents.

In turn, the NRA underwrites right-wing events, including the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting near Washington that just wrapped up on Saturday. Speakers included the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, who railed against “elites” during a fiery speech. (LaPierre was paid $5 million by the NRA in 2015, according to tax records.)

The thrust of his address was a call to arm teachers as a way of avoiding mass shootings in schools. “We must immediately harden our schools,” LaPierre said during his Thursday speech.

Trump repeated LaPierre’s points, nearly word for word, when he took the very same stage on Friday. “We have to find a way to harden those targets so that our students aren’t sitting ducks,” the president said.

The striking similarity in message, and even language, reveals the NRA’s influence in a White House bent on pleasing its Republican base. Trump has signaled he is open to some gun control measures, but gun control advocates are skeptical.

“It is a misnomer to call the NRA the gun lobby, it is really the leader of a social movement,” said Scott Melzer, a gun policy expert and professor of sociology at Albion College.

Its power, and the force that the new crop of young gun control activists will face, comes from the passion of the group’s 5 million members.

“They are as devout as religious people are. They are going to be uncompromising the way any people of any deep faith are going to be uncompromising,” said Melzer, who interviewed NRA members for his book “Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.” “It is really the religion of freedom.”

This passion comes, in part, because the NRA sells the Second Amendment as the key to all of America’s freedoms. NRA officials say that if the right to bear arms is infringed upon, the government will next go after speech, assembly, and religious rights. It’s a belief system that leaves little room for compromise, Melzer said.

Gun control supporters, so far, haven’t mustered the same kind of sustained passion for their cause. “They don’t get people get off the couch. That is what you need for a social movement. You need people to get fired up and off the couch,” Melzer said.

Plus, the NRA has a foothold in the back rooms of Washington where it has longstanding allies and relationships, said Spitzer . They have a line to the nuts and bolts of policy making, where popular ideas can be stalled and stopped.

LaPierre’s speech little more than a week after the Florida shooting is an exception to the NRA’s usual pattern. It often stays silent in the initial days after a national tragedy while focus in the media stays on stories told by survivors and funerals for victims.

“The most difficult times for the gun rights cause have been moments like this when the public is paying attention,” said Spitzer. “Most people don’t agree with the NRA.”

Two-thirds of respondents support a national ban on assault weapons, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. The poll found 97 percent support for background checks on all gun purchases.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

However, the NRA can count on public attention fading once the funerals are over for victims of a mass shooting, and the media and politicians move on.

“There is a grim math in gun world — after a mass shooting you have a about a month” before the shock of the event fades, said Mark Glaze, the cofounder of Guns Down, an advocacy group pushing for stronger gun control.

But Glaze is optimistic that the Florida students have tapped into something deeper and perhaps more lasting.

“I have never seen a situation in which, after a mass shooting, kids didn’t retreat and duck and cover, and instead got on buses and started screaming at legislators,” Glaze said. The students plan to hold rallies in about a dozen cities over the next few weeks and are organizing a march on the National Mall on March 24.

Some major companies have cut ties with the NRA in the aftermath of the shooting and no longer offer discounts to the organization’s members. They include rental car companies Hertz and Enterprise Holdings along with MetLife, the insurance company. Also, First National Bank of Omaha announced it will stop issuing an NRA-branded Visa card.

There are also hairline cracks emerging among Republicans who’ve long supported the group. Florida Senator Marco Rubio said he’s in favor of raising the age for owning an AR-15 style weapon to 21 years old from 18 years old during a nationally broadcast town hall meeting sponsored by CNN in Florida on Wednesday.

He was joined Friday by Florida Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, who added his support to the idea of lifting the minium age to buy a gun.

Any erosion of GOP support is a problem for the organization, since the NRA has long lost the bipartisan appeal it had during earlier gun control debates, said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Seth Perlman/Associated Press/File

A problem area for the NRA could be the suburban areas where Republicans are more concerned about issues like school safety than the rural gun culture. “If you’re a Republican in an upscale district, you’re making a calculation: ‘What’s more important, the NRA score or being on the right side of the gun issue?’ ” Drutman said.

He noted there’s now a counterweight to the NRA that didn’t really exist even five years ago. A big player now is Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg that formed in 2014 when two existing, but weak, gun control groups combined forces.

Still, for the new crop of student activists inspired to take action, most seasoned watchers of the gun debate cautioned patience.

“I hope these kids don’t get frustrated when they don’t see results immediately,” said Murphy, the Connecticut senator who, five years after Sandy Hook, is now a leading gun control voice in Congress. “I hope these kids understand that this will be a long-term play.”

He added: “We will eventually be strong enough to beat the NRA consistently. We aren’t today.”

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.