There's no secret why, for years, politicians of both parties have been afraid to stand up and support tighter controls on guns: Because they're afraid of the NRA. But, after the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that fear is all but gone.
In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., many Republican and Democratic members of Congress, once loyal supporters of the NRA, have broken with the organization by their willingness to endorse sensible new restrictions on guns. And they've done so for three reasons.
The most powerful reason is that the horror of what happened at Sandy Hook – 20 beautiful little kids mowed down in their classrooms – surpasses anything we've experienced so far. Sadly, we've seen too many similar scenes: at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Columbine, Aurora, Portland and other locations. But Newtown touched us most of all.
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The other two reasons center on the NRA. For starters, it's now clear that the National Rifle Association is no longer what it pretends to be: a nationwide grass-roots organization representing sportsmen, hunters and law-abiding Joe Six-Shooters of America. Today, it's little more than a front for America's big gun manufacturers – companies making the guns that are killing our kids.
Since 2005, according to a 2011 report of the Violence Policy Center, the NRA has raised up to $52.6 million from its "corporate partners," 74 percent of which are members of the firearms industry. They include manufacturers of high-capacity ammunition magazines and such well-known gun makers as Remington Arms Co., Smith & Wesson Corporation, Beretta USA Corporation, Browning, Springfield Armory and the Freedom Group, the parent company of Bushmaster, maker of the semi-automatic rifle reportedly used in the Newtown mass murder.
That explains why the NRA opposes every gun-control proposal, no matter how reasonable, no matter what its members believe. Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members support a criminal background check for purchase of all guns, even at gun shows, and 71 percent support banning those on the terrorist watch list from buying a gun. The NRA officially opposes both. Why? Because they might prevent manufacturers from selling so many guns.
Next reason why many politicians are now willing to defy the NRA: Because it's also clear that, politically, the NRA is nothing but a paper tiger. Opposition from the NRA is no longer anything to be afraid of, and support of the NRA is no winning guarantee.
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No doubt you've heard why the NRA is so politically powerful: because it single-handedly won control of the House for Republicans in 1994 and won the White House for George Bush in 2000. That's what the NRA claims. That's what many Republican and Democratic politicians repeat. But it's simply not true.
The most exhaustive study of what really happened in 1994 and 2000 was conducted by Paul Waldman for Think Progress. After analyzing every House race in 1994, Waldman concluded that, even without the endorsement of the NRA for any of their candidates, Republicans would still have gained 45 seats and control of the House. And the NRA didn't make Al Gore lose to George Bush in 2000. Ralph Nader did. Not to mention the Supreme Court.
This year the NRA didn't show much muscle, either. As Waldman documented in the New York Times, the NRA spent more than $13 million trying to defeat President Obama, and lost. They spent more than $100,000 in eight Senate races, and lost seven out of eight. In the House, more than two-thirds of incumbents who lost seats in 2012 were endorsed by the NRA. Waldman concludes on Think Progress: "In all but a tiny number of races, the NRA endorsement is essentially meaningless."
Two members of Congress could testify to the fact that the political clout of the NRA is pure myth. In November, veteran California Rep. Joe Baca campaigned for re-election with a B-plus rating from the NRA. His opponent, Gloria Negrete McLeod, earned a D. She won. Rep. John Yarmuth, sole Democrat from Kentucky, was re-elected with an F rating. Yarmuth told me on Current TV that the NRA is like "the Wizard of Oz." "You pull the curtain back and they really don't have that much influence in elections."
We will never forget the massacre in Newtown. In one way, it's already changed the political landscape. The NRA is no longer to be feared. And fear of the NRA is no longer an excuse for politicians not to do the right thing.