The NRA Is Just a Bogeyman. Congress Is Failing to Pass Gun Laws on Its Own.

The National Rifle Association is relatively weak now and doesn't have the grip on the GOP it once did--which begs the question, what does?

In Depth
The NRA Is Just a Bogeyman. Congress Is Failing to Pass Gun Laws on Its Own.
Photo:Brooks Kraft (Getty Images)

Senate Republicans blocked a half-hearted attempt by Democrats this week to take the mildest possible action in response to the unfathomable murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, this week. It’s tempting to believe and spout out the assumption that they are caving to the longstanding pressure of gun lobby—namely, the National Rifle Association. But according to Mike Spies, a reporter who has documented the NRA for the New Yorker and the Trace for years now, the organization has not held meaningful electoral power for the better part of the last decade. Its public relations apparatus and most powerful talking heads have all crumbled, and its resources are legally entangled with the New York Attorney General, even as that lawsuit has hit roadblocks.

The practical excuse that becomes available when we credit the NRA for *gestures wildly* all of this falls apart once we acknowledge that the Republicans are still choosing this path for not much money and even less power: The organization’s financial struggles resulted in significantly decreased campaign spending in 2020, compared to 2016.

“The NRA is not doing anything around the country anywhere; all their staff lawyered up and are fighting amongst each other,” Dudley Brown, a gun rights lobbyist, told the Washington Post. “The movement itself is remarkably resilient, and it’s not a pyramid as much as the NRA would love it to be. It used to be, but it’s not anymore.”

In other words: People are still buying the same old pabulum about politicians being chained to this one organization, but that’s simply not true anymore. Republicans are just in a perpetual state of lockjaw on gun rights.

The irony is obvious: Conservatives don’t just claim to just be about guns and making them limitlessly available to anyone—they also claim to be about protecting the traditional family unit, which includes children whose bodies shouldn’t be riddled with bullets at school. And yet, guns always take priority, without even the looming supposed influence of the NRA over their jobs and livelihoods.

It is tempting to give them the excuse of being owned by the gun lobby. If they don’t do what the NRA says, everyone assumes, they’ll simply lose all elections going forward. But NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre is currently facing a possible coup. The organization is a mess. Mere days after one of the worst school shootings in American history, these people are carrying on having a convention in which they’ve banned guns, because former President Donald Trump will be there. They are, for lack of a better metaphor, an extremely easy target for politicians right now. Do they really, singularly, have our entire government in a chokehold? Or are we imposing this on ourselves?

Honestly, I don’t think these motherfuckers in Congress should be able to go on vacation this weekend—they take enough vacations. I think they should sit on the House and Senate Floors pointing out what a sham the NRA is and its hypocrisy in banning guns at its own convention while insisting the weapons be easily available literally everywhere else. They should ask the question of why Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick backed out of his planned speech at the NRA convention today, saying, “I would not want my appearance to bring additional pain or grief to the families and all those suffering in Uvalde.”

If, as Patrick and other Republicans insist, our nation’s obsession with making guns available to anyone, easily, from the moment they turn 18, has nothing to do with our wildly disproportionate mass shootings problem, compared to the rest of the world—then why back out of your NRA speech? Why would the NRA ban guns at its own conference? They are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

It is hard to summon any more anger at the Republicans than we already have, because this is what they do. It’s what they’ve always done. But I am tired of Democrats, who we literally pay to fight for things like this, just giving up and going on vacation while a largely impotent organization that is the greatest symbol for the very thing that caused these children’s deaths effectively flaunts its complete disregard in everyone’s faces.

The moments that have gone viral this week and in recent weeks have been Chris Murphy (D-CT)’s impassioned floor speech, Beto O’Rourke’s interruption of the Texas press conference on the shooting, Sen. Liz Warren’s (D-Mass.) shaky-voiced fury, and basketball coach Steve Kerr’s righteous anger. Maybe these don’t move the needle, politically, according to Democratic strategists and pollsters, but the balm they deliver is an end in itself. If Democrats are going to lose, then go ahead, lose. At least make the effort. Use the power you have, even if that power is just your platform. Use anything and all of it. But for fuck’s sake, stop this dismal cycle of throwing up your hands and telling us to fucking vote. Vote for what? Show us something to vote for.

The NRA is a convenient bogeyman that is becoming less and less real. It’s true that they’ve been winning for a long time; it’s true that it feels like an impossibly uphill battle to stop Republicans’ stranglehold on progress or safety or healthcare. But if the people whose salaries we pay to fight that battle aren’t going to at least make an effort, what are we doing? What are we voting for?

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