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National Rifle Association executive director Chris Cox speaks at the group's annual meeting last month in Louisville, Kentucky.

National Rifle Association

The NRA Is Talking Tough on Crime Again, Bipartisan Prison Sentencing Reform Be Damned

It is a tested tactic, but this time the gun lobbying group is at odds with some Republican supporters.

The National Rifle Association, facing unprecedented attacks from likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, is reaching for a well-honed tactic. The group, the most powerful gun advocacy organization in the U.S., is stirring fears that proposed efforts embraced by Clinton to reform the criminal justice system by reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences will unleash a horde of marauding criminals on the American public.

“The tragic inevitable result of this perverted sense of justice is that good people die,” Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, declared at the group’s annual meeting last month in Louisville, Kentucky.

The rhetorical broadside against reform aligns the NRA with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has said he opposes sentencing reforms, and against Clinton. The former Secretary of State has joined many Democrats in opposing mandatory minimums, arguing that they have a disproportionately damaging effect on young black males.

The NRA also sees Clinton as an existential threat. She has called for extending background checks to all private sales, and said in an early primary debate that she is proud to have the NRA as an enemy. In the past, when the NRA has felt that elected officials may move to restrict the supply of guns, it has sought to stoke fears that gun restrictions will leave law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals, while arguing that mass incarceration will maintain order.

For the NRA, campaigning for lengthier prison sentences for more people is not as clean a political proposition as it was a generation ago.

The NRA’s stance is more a product of political calculus than a deeply held belief, says David Dagan, the co-author of Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration. “Their aim is to undermine the claim that reducing the supply of guns will reduce violence. To play up the threat of violent crime deflects attention from the question of gun supply.”

For the NRA, however, campaigning for lengthier prison sentences for more people is not as clean a political proposition as it was a generation ago. As The Trace has reported, the organization has evolved into a one-party organization, spending almost all of its campaign resources to elect Republicans, and defeat Democrats. And at least a handful of those Republican allies, including Senators Mike Lee of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas, also favor sentencing reform.

“The NRA has for decades invested in harsh sentencing rhetoric,” Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and an expert on gun rights tells The Trace. “The GOP shift on criminal justice is a recent phenomenon. It may be that the NRA hasn’t accurately gauged its depth or breadth.”

The NRA first employed the strategy of calling for tougher criminal penalties as the sensible, Second Amendment-approved method to reduce gun violence as opposed to restricting gun access — in the 1980s. At the time, gun control advocates were growing more vocal as urban crime spiked and the nation reeled from John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Reagan, which left White House Press Secretary James Brady paralyzed. Democrats like Edward Kennedy pushed to ban small, cheap handguns like the one Hinckley used.

The gun legislation that was adopted instead loosened gun restrictions. In 1986, Reagan signed into law the NRA-backed Firearm Owners Protection Act, or FOPA. It increased sentences for gun crimes even as it eased restrictions on the supply of guns. The NRA calls FOPA “the law that saved gun rights.”

Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush also faced a national outcry over gun violence. The crack epidemic drove gang violence up in the late 1980’s, and a 1989 shooting on a playground in Stockton, California, ushered in the era of mass school shootings. As a consequence, Bush introduced an omnibus crime bill that funded new prisons, broadened the federal use of the death penalty, and raised mandatory minimums for people who used short-barreled rifles, sawed-off shotguns, and machine guns in crimes. Democrats tried to introduce amendments banning the domestic manufacture of assault weapons, but the NRA successfully lobbied to keep such provisions out of the final bill.

In 1994, Bill Clinton put together his own omnibus crime bill. He asked Congress to ban the manufacture of assault weapons, but he also built upon Bush’s expansion of prisons and mandatory minimums. The measure created a federal “three strikes” rule that automatically imposed life sentences on repeat offenders, and subsidized prison construction for states that created “truth in sentencing” laws that limited the use of parole. (Today, some progressives consider the bill so punitive that they have refused to embrace Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate because of her role in promoting the legislation.)

The NRA attacked Bill Clinton’s bill as too lenient. The group claimed that he was targeting guns to avoid going after criminals, running a print ad that warned “Don’t Let Criminals Rape Your Rights.” Charlton Heston, then the group’s president, appeared in a series of TV spots that alleged that Clinton’s effort would release thousand of drug dealers from prison because it contained a “safety valve” clause that exempted first-time nonviolent drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentencing, which would apply to some offenders already in prison.

The political landscape around crime and guns shifted in Clinton’s second term, all the way through much of Barack Obama’s tenure. Democrats grew wary of the political costs of gun control, while, at the same time, violent crime fell drastically.

Many on the left began railing against mandatory sentencing laws, which have sent incarceration rates soaring. In 1974, 200,000 Americans were imprisoned. In 2014, there were 1.5 million people in a jail or prison.

If the NRA were to aggressively lobby against sentencing reform in Congress, it might alienate the very senators it counts on to defeat restrictive gun measures.

The sentencing reform movement grew out of this perceived injustice. In the past decade, it has gained some unlikely adherents, including many conservative politicians. Under Republican Governor Rick Perry, Texas in 2003 mandated probation instead of prison time for low-level drug offenses, and later allowed courts to divert convicts away from prison. Other national conservative figures took notice. In 2009, anti-tax crusader and NRA board member Grover Norquist told a House committee that mandatory minimum sentences should be rolled back since they “run up the costs of incarceration.”

The NRA saw opportunities in the sentencing reform movement to advance the cause of gun rights. It successfully fought a 2013 effort led by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to raise Illinois’s mandatory minimum sentences for unlawful gun possession, contending that the bill’s stiffer penalties for possession would punish people committing a “victimless crime.” The campaign scrambled the group’s typical political ties, as it joined forces with black politicians and activists against police chiefs and prosecutors. The NRA forged another unusual alliance in 2014, when it partnered with Families Against Mandatory Minimums to shield Florida gun owners from lengthy prison sentences if they fire warning shots at assailants.

By 2015, the movement to overhaul sentencing laws had reached Capitol Hill. In October, a coalition of some of the Senate’s most powerful conservatives announced they were joining with Democrats to back the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill written by Republican Mike Lee of Utah, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some federal drug and gun charges.

The Republicans who have publicly identified themselves with the legislation are long-time NRA allies, such as Mike Lee, John Cornyn, and Chuck Grassley. So far, the NRA’s fight against sentencing reform has been purely rhetorical. If the group were to escalate, dispatching lobbyists to Congress to sway these lawmakers, it might alienate the very senators it counts on to ensure no restrictive gun measures gain the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster.

“I have never heard in any conversation that the NRA were lobbying for or against it,” says Michael Collins, a deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who worked to cultivate Republican support for Lee’s bill. Aides in the office of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds the fate of the bill in his hands now that it has passed out of committee, say they haven’t heard from the NRA about the legislation.

A gun group that positions itself to the right of the NRA, Gun Owners of America, did aggressively lobby to stop the Smarter Sentencing Act. It found a champion in Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a rising right-wing star. In a speech at a Washington think tank, Cotton said America actually has an “under-incarceration” problem.

While the NRA’s objections to sentencing reform put it at odds with some Republican allies, it conforms with the worldview of Donald Trump, who the group endorsed last month. Trump has long opposed calls to make the criminal justice system less punitive. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump wrote, “The next time you hear someone saying there are too many people in prison, ask them how many thugs they’re willing to relocate to their neighborhood. The answer: None.”

The day after Trump took the stage at the group’s annual meeting in Louisville last month, NRA head Wayne LaPierre warned the crowd that “under new sentencing schemes that Hillary Clinton supports, they’re purging federal inmates by the thousands and many of them are dangerous.”

The group also took aim at the argument employed by many conservative sentencing reform advocates, that aggressive law enforcement and incarceration is too costly. “They say they can’t afford to pay for police. They can’t afford to pay for prosecutors or prisons to protect us. So now, in many courts around this country, they’re tossing out the charges,” LaPierre said. He warned this reasoning would inevitably lead to more crime, and thus more calls for gun control: “They blame the carnage on your right to own a gun to protect yourself from those very same killers.”

The NRA’s condemnation of sentencing reform looks more like posturing to energize its membership than a true political investment, says Dagan. “What the NRA mostly needs is the rhetoric of tough on crime, not the policy.”

[Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP]