The dual defeats left Cuomo disillusioned. He gave a speech in June 2000 that was stunningly bleak. "If we engage the enemy in this town, we will lose," he said. "They will beat us in this town. They are too strong in this town. Their fortress is within the Beltway."
LaPierre had helped gunmakers dodge two bullets as the Clinton years drew to a close. But to lock in these gains, the NRA needed an ally in the White House.
The NRA backed Bush to the hilt in the 2000 race. According to one tally, one in three dollars spent by outside groups to support the Bush ticket was spent by the NRA, and in the end Bush beat Gore among gun owners by 25 points. "The gun issue cost Al Gore the White House," says Feldman. "Forget the couple of hundred chads in Palm Beach. Absent the gun issue, he would have won Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia."
The Bush administration rewarded the NRA as few could have imagined. Bush appointed NRA favorite John Ashcroft as attorney general, who, in May 2001, announced that for the first time in the nation's history the Justice Department had adopted the view, long championed by the NRA, that the Second Amendment confers an individual, not a collective, right to bear arms.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when other constitutional protections were being trampled, nothing would shake this conviction, not even the fact that a jihadist training manual found in Afghanistan instructed Al Qaeda operatives living in the United States on how to, legally and without arousing suspicion, "obtain an assault weapon, preferably an AK-47 or a variation." The Bush administration continued to press the NRA's expansive vision of the Second Amendment until it was even adopted by the Supreme Court in 2008.
It wasn't only restrictions on the sale of military-grade weaponry that the NRA fought. It also fought to keep Americans in the dark about the relative dangers of such guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms compiles detailed records about what firearms are used in what types of crime, and even published a list of the top 10 crime guns. To block the release of that data, Todd Tiahrt, a GOP congressman from Kansas and an NRA ally, tacked a rider onto a 2003 appropriations bill that forbids ATF from spending any money to share the data it collects with the public – or even with Congress. "If you wanted to know how many Bushmasters have been used in what kinds of crime for the last five years, that information is in ATF's files," says Diaz. "But it can't be released because of the Tiahrt Amendment."
With Bush in the White House and the public now blindered to the perils of semiautomatic weapons, the Assault Weapons Ban was on a glide path to expire in 2004. And the NRA, hellbent to free the gunmakers and dealers from any responsibility resulting from the use of these dangerous weapons, continued to press ahead in its fiercest fight: a federal bill immunizing the industry from liability.
In 2004, the NRA had gathered its forces in the Senate and pushed them to bring a liability bill to the floor. A gun-control group, Americans for Gun Safety, made the decision that it was willing to stop fighting the bill, whose passage seemed all but certain, if it could somehow force the NRA to accept renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban and the closure of the gun-show loophole in the bargain.
The compromise bill had a clear path to victory. The gun-control activists believed they'd backed the NRA into a corner. Their thinking, says Jim Kessler, who directed policy for AFGS, was that the NRA would say, "OK, we gotta take this because who knows what will happen in 2005. John Kerry could be president."
Then something extraordinary happened: The NRA blew up the deal, letting senators know that any votes for the bill would be recorded as votes against the NRA. "You could see them on the Senate floor looking at their BlackBerrys and changing their votes," says Kessler. The bill died by a vote of 8 to 90.
This was becoming a pattern. Just as he'd done by upending the White House settlement talks with the industry in the late 1990s, LaPierre had once again cut the bottom out of a hard-fought political compromise to impose meaningful gun restrictions. "There is not a middle ground with the NRA," says Diaz. Indeed, LaPierre had laid this strategy in a 2002 speech to his membership: "We must declare that there are no shades of gray," he said. "You're with us or against us."
Bush rolled to re-election, and the NRA continued to roll up victories. The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, reopening the market for the high-capacity magazines favored by mass murderers. And in 2005, the NRA finally secured clean passage of a law immunizing manufacturers, importers, distributors and dealers from any civil liability. After President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that October, LaPierre called it "the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in 20 years." Who did it benefit? LaPierre made no pretenses: "History will show that this law helped save the American firearms industry."
The NRA, severely weakened just years earlier, seemed once again an invincible force in Washington. And Democrats, tired of losing elections on the issue, made gun control the new third rail of Washington politics. In the 2006 election cycle, two longtime foes of the NRA, Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer, were responsible for recruiting and funding attractive Democratic candidates. And they decided to drop guns as an issue altogether. "People didn't care about what your position was on guns," says a top Democrat. The party would support you either way.
They recruited pro-gun candidates who won the kind of races Democrats usually get trounced in. Among the ranks of the 2006 class of gun-friendly Blue Dogs was one Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. The gun lobby welcomed its new amigos with open arms. "I always bent over backwards to help Democrats," says Feldman, the former lobbyist. "A Democrat who was supportive of my issue was worth 10 Republicans."
Though Barack Obama had campaigned on modest gun-control proposals, he ducked any fights over the issue. "His view was never that we shouldn't move on these things," political strategist David Axelrod says. "His view was that such moves would be largely symbolic because of the power of the gun lobby to stop them."
Bloomberg doesn't buy that excuse. "The first two years of the Obama administration, the Democrats had the White House, the Senate and Congress," says Bloomberg. "And they did nothing." In early 2009, after Attorney General Eric Holder casually mentioned that renewing the Assault Weapons Ban was a priority, Rahm Emanuel, then the president's chief of staff, sent a characteristically profane message to Holder on the gun issue: "Shut the fuck up."
In fact, Obama moved to expand gun rights as though Bush were still in office. He signed laws to allow guns in checked baggage on Amtrak trains and to allow conceal-carry permit holders to pack heat in national parks. In 2009, the Brady Campaign gave Obama a report card with seven F's.
While Jared Loughner's assassination attempt on Giffords was met with a national presidential address and tearful pieties, the aftermath stopped short of meaningful legislative or executive action. "In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary," Giffords wrote in January. "Nothing at all."
Like every other element of today's modern conservative machinery, the NRA works in the background to expand corporate power – while pretending in public to advance the interests of the little guy. The NRA continues to put forward its members as the face of the organization. But dues from members bring in less than half of the association's yearly expenses, which include spending heavily on a sophisticated telemarketing campaign to sustain its membership.
To stay afloat, the NRA relies on tens of millions in grants and gifts – increasingly linked to the gun industry. Such funds totaled $71 million in 2010 and have been growing twice as fast as membership dues have. And the NRA, looking to bring in even bigger bucks, is now fishing for donors with Koch-size wallets. On its website, the NRA lists a donor tier for those who give $25 million or above, which it calls the "Charlton Heston Society."
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