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 NRA
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Reston-Herndon Alliance To End Gun Violence
By |

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.

5. Bring Big Money to the Table
The NRA has money, patience, and a long memory. The gun lobby relishes nothing more than ritually destroying the careers of politicians who have crossed it—often years after the fact. See, for example, Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican whom the NRA helped trounce in his 2012 primary fight as punishment for, among other transgressions, his vote for the Assault Weapons Ban back in 1993.

But the emergence of billionaire Michael Bloomberg as the gun-control movement's money man has been a game changer. Last year, on the strength of $12 million from Bloomberg himself, gun-control advocates outspent gun-rights groups on television by a margin of 7-to-1.

Bloomberg's largesse also means that politicians who take brave votes on gun control are unlikely to find themselves twisting in the wind, defenseless against an election-year onslaught by the NRA.

What's left is to marry Bloomberg's big dollars to a disciplined, broad-based army of activists, like the NRA enjoys, comprised Americans who favor gun control and will work to tip races — both with their small dollars and with their votes — when guns are on the ballot.

6. Think Bigger than Mayors, Moms, and Martyrs
The NRA wins because it's a massive organization with a national focus, a storied history, simple branding — not to mention a constitutional amendment in its back pocket.

Not only is its member base huge — perhaps 5 million — the NRA is also increasingly a part of the dark-money machinery of national Republican politics. IRS rules require SuperPACs that don't disclose their donors to spend half their bounty on "social welfare." One easy way for groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers network to meet that requirement, while still funding conservative electoral aims, is to plow money into the NRA.

Ideally, gun-control advocates would meet the NRA with a national, big-tent, big-money-and-grassroots organization all their own.

Until very recently, gun-control forces have been balkanized among disparate groups centered on mayors, mothers, and martyrs — those whose political careers were cut short because of gun violence. The most influential today are Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a new group, founded after Newtown, Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America). Another upstart is run by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Americans for Responsible Solutions. Her outfit follows in the path of the largest legacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, founded by Jim Brady, who like Giffords, was also shot in the head during an assassination attempt. (Brady was hit during the 1981 shooting of President Reagan, under whom he'd served as Press Secretary.)

All of these organizations are well intentioned and the gun control movement is unquestionably stronger for their existence. But they are insufficient, duplicative, and in many ways self-limiting. America has a catastrophic crisis of gun violence, with 30,000 dying every year. This is a problem that transcends mayors who must contend with urban shootings and illegal handguns. It is bigger than the moral outrage of mothers. And it's not going to be solved by center-right politicos who came to Jesus on gun-control after getting shot.

The 'moms' and 'mayors' branding is problematic, moreover, in that it reinforces right wing scaremongering about gun control being the province nanny-state gun grabbers. In addition, it needlessly boxes out allies: If you're a young person who lost a friend to suicide, or a dad who lost a son to gang violence, where do you fit in? As for clarity of purpose, surely the gun control movement can improve on the focus-grouped mush of "Americans for Responsible Solutions."

It is with great promise that Bloomberg and Moms Demand Action have joined forces under a new umbrella — Everytown for Gun Safety — with an expansive, no-nonsense mission:"to end gun violence and build safer communities." Launched in April with $50 million in backing from Bloomberg, the group already claims two million members.

7. Prepare for Setbacks — and for Payback
The Second Amendment gives the NRA the ultimate trump card. Sometimes even the limited, achievable goals of gun control will be deemed too aggressive — violations of the individual right to bear arms. In New York, for example, a federal judge recently upheld as both kosher and constitutional the state's toughened assault-weapons ban, and its law against magazines larger than 10 rounds. But the court threw out as "arbitrary" the state's attempt to prohibit gun owners from placing more than seven bullets in their guns.

A greater menace than legal setbacks is, as we alluded to in step number 5, the political payback the NRA seeks to exact. In the wake of post-Newtown and Aurora reforms, the NRA has already drawn blood. It led a successful September special-election recall of two state legislators in Colorado who voted to expand gun-control in March 2013, strengthening background checks and limiting magazines to 15 rounds. It was a well-funded fight on both sides, with Bloomberg and the NRA each ponying up about $350,000. Ultimately the NRA won in a low-turnout election where its grassroots power tipped the scales.

The gun lobby loves to take political scalps — they add to its aura of invincibility, and help keep other politicians in line. But here's a premise that any politician committed to public service ought to accept: Protecting kids from gun violence is one of those rare things that is worth losing your job for. As ousted Colorado senate president John Morse said after the recall: "I leave the legislature with no regrets."