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How to Beat the NRA In 7 (Not-So-Easy) Steps

The gun lobby seems like a Goliath, but here's how to play David

Members of the Reston-Herndon Alliance To End Gun Violence
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
July 14, 2014 9:00 AM ET

The NRA remains one of the most formidable forces in American political life. But it is not bulletproof. Since the massacres in Aurora and Newtown, states from New York and Maryland to Colorado and California have made modest progress against the gun lobby, passing a raft of new laws aimed at reducing gun violence. There are sharp lessons to be learned from these victories, and even more important ones to be gleaned from the playbook of the NRA itself. The seven strategies below can empower gun-control advocates to stop bemoaning their helplessness, and start carrying the day.

America's Gun Violence Epidemic

1. Commit to a Generation-Long Battle
The NRA is engaged in a long war. Americans committed to combating gun violence must be also. 

By and large, the NRA doesn't win with flashy, high profile political fights. The gun lobby wins like the Baltimore Ravens of the Ray Lewis era, marrying competent offensive execution to a punishing defense that keeps opponents out of the red zone.

This approach has enabled the NRA to grind out national victories, state by state, often without the need for federal legislation. Consider concealed-carry law. There's no national standard. But thanks to the NRA's relentless efforts, Illinois last year became the 50th state to pass legislation allowing its residents to pack heat. Likewise, the radical redefinition of self-defense embodied in "stand your ground," has quietly been made law in more than two dozen states.

With its long game, the NRA has not only changed our national culture of guns, it has succeeded in fundamentally redefining gun rights. Although the NRA proclaimed it so for generations, it wasn't until 2008 that the Supreme Court actually re-interpreted the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right (rather than a collective right, through militias) to bear arms — a wild bit of judicial activism perpetrated by so-called constitutional conservatives and "originalists."

Too often, gun control advocates seem to believe the NRA can be defeated with Hail Mary passes. The bitter truth is that even when one of these game-changing plays connects — think: the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 — the NRA is both potent and patient enough to reverse that forward progress in due time, as when George W. Bush allowed that law to expire a decade later, Columbine notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, the NRA has proved it can mount a big-play offense of its own, when it chooses, as it did in 2005, when the gun lobby and a GOP-dominated congress connected to pass a law immunizing gun manufacturers from civil liability for their deadly products.

2. Think Federally. Act Locally.
"If we engage the enemy in Washington we will lose…. Their fortress is within the Beltway. We're going to beat them state by state, community by community…."

These words about the NRA were spoken 14 years ago by a young Clinton cabinet secretary named Andrew Cuomo — today the Governor of New York. Cuomo had just watched the gun lobby blow up post-Columbine gun-control legislation, and witnessed the NRA's campaign to bankrupt gun-maker Smith & Wesson for daring to cooperate on gun-safety efforts with the Clinton administration.

If Cuomo's insight was apt in 2000, the reality in Washington has only grown gloomier in the intervening years. The expansion of background checks proposed in the Senate last year in the months after Newtown had the backing of 92 percent of Americans. And yet, 46 Senators sided with the NRA to block the bill's progress well before the legislation reached the Republican-controlled House.

Rural and red-state America are vastly over-represented in Congress, and so too are their pro-gun views. The promise of having a Chicago Democrat in the White House today is not that it significantly ups the chances of passing a heroic piece of federal legislation to solve the nation's crisis of gun violence. The promise is that federal flank is well defended by Obama and his veto powers — and that gun-control advocates can focus where the NRA is most vulnerable: In blue states big (New York, California) and small (Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware) — and even in purpler places, like Colorado, that have been scarred by gun violence.

3. Politicize Disaster, Unabashedly
This may make some progressives queasy. But if you don't have the stomach for hardball politics, just accept that you're going to be steamrolled by the NRA — which shamelessly stokes the emotional power of national tragedies like 9/11, Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy to convince Americans that social collapse is around the corner, and you really should be buying that AR-15.

This isn't complicated: Making a political issue of the tiny coffins of dead children in the wake of a school shooting isn't just a thing that helps pass strong gun-control, it's practically the only thing in the last quarter century that's moved the needle on anti-gun-violence laws. Recall that the catalyst for the 1994 assault weapons ban was a 1989 school shooting in Stockton, California, that killed five kids and wounded 29 other children.

It's not distasteful to act in the name of victims of gun violence. What's distasteful to squander the burning anger and intense political focus that such senseless bloodshed inspires. There's nothing dishonorable in taking the swift and necessary action to prevent other children from being massacred by an idiot with a war rifle.

4. Act, Don't Dither    
When catastrophic events like Newtown unfold, there's an impulse from many elected officials to slow down, to gather facts, to ensure that cooler heads prevail. Politically, this is why gun-control dies. 

President Obama provided an object lesson in the futility of taking it slow in the aftermath of Newtown. He'd tasked Vice President Joe Biden to gather stakeholders in Washington for a month of listening-sessions and information gathering before unveiling a gun-control package that included not only plausibly achievable measures (universal background checks) but such pie-in-the sky options as a new, tougher assault weapons ban.

The policy prescriptions were not novel in any respect. They could have been put to congress within days of the massacre. But Obama's delay frittered away the hair-on-fire urgency of the political moment, allowing the NRA to regroup and mount a record $800,000 lobbying push against any federal action. The president's proposals didn't survive first contact with Congress, which nonetheless followed the president's cue on delayed action, waiting another three months before mounting its futile effort to close the gun-show loophole.

Contrast this federal fecklessness with the approach Cuomo took in New York. The governor didn't study or ponder or task force. He moved as aggressively as the political moment allowed. And within a month of Newtown, Cuomo had signed tough new laws stiffening New York's gun-control regime, improving the state ban on assault weapons, limiting guns to seven bullets, and creating a new mental health reporting requirement for doctors whose patients threaten violence.

The governor even invoked his emergency powers to suspend the standard three-day debating period prescribed for most legislation, ushering the gun-control bills through on land-side votes in both chambers of the state legislature, including the closely-divided state senate. Predictably, the NRA kicked and screamed about Cuomo's "outrageous and undemocratic action," decrying his "executive trick" and accusing him of taking a "hatchet to gun rights in New York with lightning speed."

Pro tip: The more frothy-mouthed the NRA press release, the clearer it is you're winning.

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