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 Now a largely pro–Second Amendment Democratic House majority has been replaced by a largely pro–Second Amendment Republican House majority, and the few Republicans who have not consistently backed gun owners’ rights, such as Sen.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.
The NRA takes great pains to emphasize that it is a nonpartisan organization, and the group likes to spotlight high-profile Democrats who vote with them. Last year, House Democrats Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Dan Boren of Oklahoma addressed the convention, keeping far away from any mention of their party’s leadership and turning the folksiness up to eleven. Shuler talked about how the first piece of advice he received as a candidate was from his father, who told him to always stand for hunters.
Playing the role of Heath Shuler this year is Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who barely survived a GOP wave in his state last year, winning 51 percent of the vote. (The NRA endorsed Altmire in 2008 and 2010.) It’s a short trip for Altmire, who lives innearby McCandless and whose district encompasses some of the Pittsburgh suburbs. In January, Altmire pointedly didn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker — he explicitly blamed her for the Democrats’ midterm losses, and said that with her as the party’s leader in the House, the Democrats will never win back the lost seats. Altmire voted for Shuler instead.
Other political figures addressing the convention this week include Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who is seriously considering a Senate bid in his home state against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.
The emerging “gun-walker” scandal at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Department of Justice is likely to be a frequent topic of discussion. Since taking office, Obama and his cabinet have lamented horrific drug-cartel violence in Mexico and blamed U.S. gun dealers for facilitating that violence. But while the administration blamed American businesses for violence in Mexico, federal agencies were literally watching guns head across the border in the hands of dangerous individuals and doing nothing about it.
In an ATF sting operation that went wildly awry, federal authorities approved firearms purchases in border states that seemed suspicious, and were supposed to monitor the buyers to see where the guns ended up. But the scale of the purchases was massive, and the agents on the ground kept anxiously waiting for the order to stop monitoring and intervene, according to stunning accounts from ATF agents and documentation uncovered by CBS News and other sources. As early as March 2010, ATF agents were finding the “monitored” firearms in the hands of suspected criminals in Mexico. One ATF e-mail reported, “Our subjects purchased 359 firearms during March alone,” including “numerous Barrett .50 caliber rifles.” Worst of all, one of the guns that slipped across the border under ATF surveillance was used to murder U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
The revelations triggered a furious reaction from Capitol Hill and investigations in the House and Senate, but so far, Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) have found almost no serious cooperation from the administration. The latest news is that House and Senate investigators are in Arizona for their probes, gathering interviews from witnesses, including ATF insiders and area gun-shop owners. The response from the Obama administration, ATF, and Department of Justice is characterized as “across-the-board stonewalling.”
The gun-walking scandal confirms gun owners’ worst suspicions: a government lax on keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals, and using that failure to justify further restrictions on legal gun purchases. Attorney General Eric Holder was already an unpopular name in NRA circles; this week, he may be a punch line.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.