Rob Christensen

Why Congress won’t act on gun violence without NRA permission

We act as if the unending massacres that are occurring at concerts, high schools, baseball practices, college campuses, churches, military installations, movie theaters, elementary schools and so forth are acts of God – like hurricanes or tornadoes.

We pray for the victims and their families, we fly flags at half-mast and we shake our heads in sorrow, as we should.

But thinking of them as beyond our control ignores the connection between the carnage and the world’s most lax gun laws.

Why the U.S. government seems paralyzed in the face of these gun massacres is vividly illustrated by North Carolina’s 2014 Senate race.

In a pro-gun state, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan had a pro-gun record. Hagan was a moderate banker-lawyer from a military family, where her children all received hunting licenses when they were born. As a senator she voted against banning high-capacity magazines of more than 10 bullets. She voted to allow firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, voted to repeal Washington’s handgun ban, voted for preventing gun ownership from affecting insurance premiums, and opposed a U.N. arms treaty which gun advocates feared could be used to limit gun rights.

But after the 2012 massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, then-President Barack Obama pushed for greater checks on gun sales.

What emerged was a modest bipartisan proposal by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would require criminal and mental-health background checks for guns sold at gun shows and online.

The bill received 54 votes in the Senate in April 2013, including Hagan’s, short of the 60 needed to break the Republican filibuster.

That vote, arguably, cost Hagan her Senate seat.

The National Rifle Association awarded her a D+ grade and vowed to defeat her for re-election in 2014 for straying from the NRA line.

The NRA found its candidate in Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who had helped the gun lobby group push through the state legislature two bills – one in 2011 expanding the “castle doctrine” giving North Carolina residents the right to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes, and one in 2013 expanding the places that gun owners could carry concealed weapons to include school parking lots, public parks and restaurants that serve alcohol.

“Those important bills would have never even seen the light of day without the sustained public support of the NRA, which also played a pivotal role in electing a majority in the North Carolina Legislature that was committed to expanding our Second Amendment rights,” Tillis wrote in an opinion piece published in May 2015 in The Washington Times.

The NRA spent $5.5 million to defeat Hagan, the most it spent on any race in the country that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Many of the NRA ads tied Hagan to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate. One ad even purported to show Bloomberg’s mansion with a portrait of Hagan on the wall.

“Out-of-state gun control groups are all-in for Kay Hagan, because she helped Obama and Bloomberg push their extreme anti-gun agenda,’’ says the announcer in an ad sponsored by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. “Hagan voted for control. So liberal billionaires throw millions at her campaign. That’s how it works.”

Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, reported spending $2,040 on behalf of Hagan’s campaign in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Bloomberg may have indirectly contributed significantly more by giving to other groups who gave to Hagan’s campaign.

Among them was Americans for Responsible Solutions, a pro-gun group started by Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman severely wounded by a deranged gunman. Her organization spent $944,124 on behalf of Hagan, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tillis won the race with 48.8 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47.2 percent. Tillis said the NRA not only helped him defeat Hagan, but allowed him to emerge from a competitive GOP primary.

“I know firsthand about the power of the NRA grass roots after receiving the NRA Political Victory Fund’s endorsement in April 2014, which came at a critical time, just weeks before the hotly contested Republican Senate primary,” Tillis wrote in the Washington Times piece.

“I, like millions of other Americans, am grateful for the tremendous effort and resources the NRA devotes to winning elections and its unwavering determination in stopping the attempts of unelected bureaucrats and out-of-the mainstream liberal politicians to implement gun control laws that infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

In 2016, the NRA and its spinoff spent $5.1 million to help Republican Sen. Richard Burr defeat his Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, portraying her as an enemy of the Second Amendment.

During last year’s U.S. House races, nearly every North Carolina Republican congressman received financial help from the NRA.

Before the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Congress seemed poised to pass legislation to loosen gun regulation – such as a bill regarding the purchase of silencers and a measure, sponsored by North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord, to make it easier for concealed carry permit holders to take their weapons to other states. Those proposals are probably on hold.

Now there is movement by the NRA and some Republican leaders to discuss tightening the regulation of so-called bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds per minute. This was apparently how the Las Vegas shooter was able to kill at least 58 people in minutes.

This is unlikely to make much of a dent in the carnage. But it’s something.

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