Pittsburgh— At first glance, life seems good for the National Rifle Association and its members.
While many conservatives bewailed the era of Democratic rule that began in January 2009, Obama actually signed several pieces of NRA-supported legislation, including bills allowing Americans to bring guns onto Amtrak trains and carry them in national parks. Now a largely pro–Second Amendment Democratic House majority has been replaced by a largely pro–Second Amendment Republican House majority, and the few Republicans who have not consistently backed gun owners’ rights, such as Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, are likely to face serious primary challenges. Polling suggests public opinion is shifting heavily in the group’s favor, and the Tea Party is a vocal, increasingly powerful grassroots movement based on concerns about liberty,with interests that greatly align with gun owners’. Finally, the idea of a 2012 Republican nominee who isn’t supportive of Second Amendment seems all but unthinkable.
But there are some storm clouds on the horizon.
The NRA looks at Washington and sees a president who has been a foe throughout his career, a vice president who has been a foe throughout his career, a secretary of state who has been a foe throughout her career, and an attorney general who has been a foe throughout his career. Most ominously, Obama has made two Supreme Court picks who voted to uphold Chicago’s blanket handgun ban, even though one of them (Sotomayor) had said under oath in her confirmation hearings that she understood “the individual right fully that the Supreme Court recognized” in overturning the District of Columbia’s similar gun ban. (The D.C. case applied only to the federal government; the Chicago case “incorporated” the Second Amendment against state and local governments.)
The two recent victories for gun owners at the Supreme Court were 5–4 decisions; as Wayne LaPierre bluntly put it in pre-convention interviews, one more justice who thinks like Sotomayor or Kagan “could break the back of the Second Amendment in this country.” After barely mentioning gun control in his first two years in office, Obama responded to the tragic shooting in Tucson by penning an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star calling for “common sense” steps to prevent gun sales to dangerous individuals.
While none of the proposals in Obama’s op-ed were particularly controversial, LaPierre and NRA Institute for Legislative Action director Chris Cox greeted his message with great wariness. ”To focus on a national dialogue on guns — and not criminals or mental-health issues –misses the point entirely,” they wrote in a response to Obama. “We agree with your statement that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. Your record as a public official, however, is anything but supportive of the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
Many gun owners, including LaPierre, suspect that Obama would push gun control proposals much harder if he wins a second term.
The speaker lineup for this year’s convention also indicates that the road to replacing Obama may be rockier than it appeared a year ago. Some of the Republican figures who were well received at last year’s convention in Charlotte — Indiana congressman Mike Pence, South Dakota senator John Thune, and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour — have all decided to forego a presidential bid. Last year, Sarah Palin’s address was the headline act; her presence ensured an entirely different level of media attention than the NRA convention usually gets, and while her address wasn’t that of a presidential candidate, she enjoyed a great deal of affection within that arena. Palin is not expected to speak at this year’s convention.
This year, NRA members will hear from several current or potential presidential candidates, although most are relative longshots: former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton. Mike Huckabee will give the convention’s keynote address on Saturday.