Twenty tiny coffins have again put the NRA on the defensive. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, which Adam Lanza perpetrated with his mom's arsenal, public support of new gun-control laws is overwhelming. Today, 92 percent of the country support background checks for gun buyers, and 63 percent support limiting the capacity of gun magazines. "If there's a conflict for some members of Congress between their politics and their conscience, they should ponder that 92 percent number," says Axelrod.
There's also new leadership in the gun-control movement. Bloomberg tells Rolling Stone that his mayors' group will be bringing local pressure on national elected officials and orchestrating coordinated visits by the nation's mayors to congressional and Senate offices, with delegations of voting constituents in tow.
"These people want to get re-elected," says Bloomberg of Congress. "If they think the public wants gun control, they'll do it. If they think the NRA is more powerful than the public, they'll follow the NRA. We've got to convince them that the NRA is not that powerful."
To beat the NRA in Washington, however, the gun-control crowd is going to need more than constituent visits. It's going to need money. In the 2012 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $24 million in both regulated and dark money. Compare that to just $3,000 in campaign spending by the Brady Campaign. And such yawning disparities don't begin to account for the NRA's advantage in organizing activists at the level of every congressional district in the country. "If you think about politics as a tug of war," says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, "when all the strength is on one side, it's not surprising where the rope ends up."
Republicans who control the House have already declared that gun control is off the table. Even newly elected Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of gun-loving North Dakota has called the president's push for new gun laws "wrongheaded."
Andrew Cuomo's bleak declaration – "If we engage the enemy in Washington, we will lose" – may hold as true today as it did in 2000. But Cuomo himself is demonstrating that there's another path to victory that doesn't rely on a cowed Congress. In January, Cuomo, now governor of New York, passed the nation's strongest gun-control law, limiting magazine clips to seven rounds, strengthening the state's ban on assault rifles and requiring mental-health professionals to notify police about patients who threaten violence – before they go postal.
Cuomo is fulfilling the prediction he made as a 42-year-old HUD director: "We're going to beat them state by state, community by community, because we have the ultimate weapon with us, the American people."
The NRA wins because Americans lose focus. Because our outrage fades after each new heartbreak. Because by November 2014, most of us won't be thinking about the victims of Newtown. Most of us won't be thinking about guns at all – while millions of activists, riled by Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, will be thinking of nothing else. If this time is going to be different, Americans have to act different, give different, vote different. In his speech laying out his gun-safety agenda in January, President Obama was absolutely right: "This will not happen unless the American people demand it."
This story is from the February 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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