Last week, after much debate, Cleveland’s police chief announced that attendees of the Republican National Convention would be within their rights to openly carry firearms outside the convention hall. That the announcement was necessary at all demonstrates the extent to which the Republican Party has linked itself to the gun rights movement.
Its close relationship with the National Rifle Association has developed as the GOP has aligned itself with pro-gun factions. The NRA’s own shift — from a hobbyist group into a politically focused organization dedicated to Second Amendment defense — became apparent in the 1970s, when the group lobbied lawmakers to relax restrictions on firearms. Throughout the 1980s, while often working in lockstep with the GOP, it still maintained a vast array of Democratic allies, especially in the South. Young lawmakers like Al Gore coveted the organization’s endorsement. As a congressman in Tennessee, he voted against putting serial numbers on firearms. In 1986, as a senator, Gore said gun control laws “haven’t been an effective solution to the underlying problem of violent crime.”
In the 1990s, as vice president, Gore would embrace some gun restrictions. And so would the NRA, moving decidedly in the direction of a single-party organization after the passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban. Over the following decades, the relationship between the NRA and Democrats continued to sour, and the group put more and more financial muscle into electing Republicans. By the party’s 2016 presidential primary contest, mainstream Republicanism held scant room for moderation on gun policy, leaving candidates divided over issues like immigration and trade all scrambling to portray themselves as the most ardent representative of the NRA’s increasingly hardline platform.
The Republican National Convention is now underway in Cleveland. On Tuesday, the NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, is scheduled to speak. Here’s how the GOP became the party of the NRA, in 16 steps.
November 1993: The most significant gun legislation since the Gun Control Act of 1968 clears both houses of Congress with substantial support from Republicans, after the NRA had lobbied against it for years. The bill is named for James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s first press secretary, who was shot and wounded during John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Reagan in March 1981. (Brady is paralyzed for the rest of his life. When he dies in 2014, Brady’s death is ruled a homicide, resulting from the injuries he sustained in the attack.) Reagan and his wife provide important support for the proposal.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires background checks for all gun sales conducted by federally licensed dealers. In the House, 56 Republicans vote in favor of the bill; in the Senate, 16 Republicans do the same. Republican supporters include moderate senators like John Chaffee of Rhode Island and William Cohen of Maine; along with Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
September 1994: Decades of rising crime coincide with a new public health and safety menace, the crack cocaine epidemic, to produce record high levels of violence in the early 1990s, especially in major American cities.
The crime wave dominates the national political conversation. President Bill Clinton pushes Congress to come to a consensus on an omnibus crime bill that would make prison sentences harsher and add cops to city streets. Democratic lawmakers, led by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, insert a provision they had kept warm since George H. W. Bush’s presidency: An assault weapons ban. The language included in the bill prohibits the sale and manufacturing of fully automatic weapons and a select list of semiautomatic guns, and also limits the size of magazines. In September, Congress narrowly adopts the legislation with a Senate vote of 52 to 48, and President Clinton signs it the same day. Then-Congressman John Kasich is among the Republicans who vote in favor for the bill.
Subsequent studies of the ban show it had almost no effect on gun deaths — handguns, not semiautomatic rifles, are the most commonplace weapon of choice for gun crimes — and an uncertain effect on deaths from mass shootings.
November 1994: The 1994 midterm elections are a disaster for incumbent Democrats, especially in the House. For the first time in 40 years, Republicans take control of the chamber. They are propelled in part by support from the NRA, which is incensed by the passage of the assault weapons ban and campaigns against high-ranking Democrats that had supported the legislation, including Speaker of the House Thomas Foley and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jack Brooks, emphasizing their support of the assault weapons ban as their most disqualifying feature. Both lost their seats.
In the aftermath of the Democratic whomping, the narrative is that the gun lobby secured the election for the Republican party. This assertion is touted by both Republican winners and bruised Democrats. “The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House,” President Clinton declares after the election.
The perception that the NRA was the deciding factor in swaying the election for Republicans has since been largely debunked, but the belief that the gun group can decide elections remains widespread.
[image courtesy of Business Insider]
Spring 1995: Despite the boost in the NRA’s perceived power, the group is bleeding members and funding. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre tries to resuscitate the organization with a provocative fundraising letter in which he calls agents for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives “jack-booted thugs,” in light of their confrontation with extremists at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Six days after LaPierre releases his letter, Timothy McVeigh bombs a federal office building in Oklahoma City.
The letter goes too far for former President George H.W. Bush, an avid hunter and lifelong NRA member, who responds by quitting the organization in a public letter published in the New York Times. “Your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor, and it offends my concept of service to country,” he writes.
Ignoring this high-profile reprimand, LaPierre stands by his condemnation of the ATF, presaging the evolution of a Republican party that has little room for gun moderates like Bush.
November 2000: The NRA calls the 2000 presidential election the most important contest in 20 years, and hitches itself to the second member of the Bush dynasty to secure the Republican nomination in unprecedented fashion. A high-ranking NRA official is captured on camera telling a roomful of supporters that, should George W. Bush ascend to the White House, “We work out of their office.” The NRA is among the Republican National Committee’s 10 largest donors for the year, placing it on the same tier as powerful corporate interests like Microsoft and Philip Morris.
Bush himself, seeking to attract centrist voters, tries to distance himself from the NRA. With the Republican nominee saying the NRA would not hold any special influence over him, the gun group exerts its power by launching relentless attacks on former ally Al Gore, who, as vice president, cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate in 1999 to expand background checks. (The bill, which came in the wake of the Columbine shooting, would have closed the so-called gun show loophole, by which private sellers are not required to conduct background checks. The measure failed in the House.) The NRA devotes its annual meeting to Gore, describing the candidate as the country’s gravest existential threat to the gun rights movement. The NRA’s president, Charlton Heston, raises a replica colonial musket and directs a message at Gore: “From my cold, dead hands!” Gore loses his home state of Tennessee, and the election.
May 2001: As the NRA had predicted, it finds a friend in the administration of President George W. Bush. In early 2001, shortly after taking office, Attorney General John Ashcroft tells the NRA in a letter that he believes the Second Amendment protects gun rights for individuals, and that the Founding Fathers’ intentions belied the Supreme Court’s prevailing and more limited interpretation of the amendment.
The Department of Justice follows suit, asserting an individual right to bear arms in government briefs to the Supreme Court in 2002. Six years later, the Supreme Court will settle the question in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller, which strikes down the capital city’s ban on handguns.
May 2003: The assault weapons ban is set to expire in 2004. The NRA adamantly opposes its renewal, and reacts with great alarm when one of its staunchest allies, President Bush, announces that he supports legislation to keep the law in place. Grover Norquist, an NRA board member, tells the New York Times, “This is a president who has been so good on the Second Amendment that it’s just unbelievable to gun owners that he would really sign the ban.” In the end, Bush doesn’t have to defy the NRA. Despite broad support from law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Republican-controlled Congress blocks the bill, and the ban expires.
Summer 2009: As President Barack Obama gets his first chance to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court, the NRA breaks with precedent to assert its influence over the judiciary, a branch of government putatively independent from partisan politics. Sonia Sotomayor is expected to be swiftly confirmed to replace retiring justice David Souter when Obama puts her name forward for the seat. As a federal judge, Sotomayor had never explicitly engaged with gun rights: The closest she came was a decision upholding New York state’s ban on nunchucks, in which she said the Second Amendment does not prevent states from regulating deadly weapons.
But the confirmation hearings are taking place at the start of the Obama presidency, and Republicans are eager to pick fights. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, enlists the NRA to take the novel step of scoring the vote on Sotomayor, factoring senators’ positions on her nomination into the updated letter grades it will hand out during the next election cycle. The NRA agrees.
To Republican senators, the message is clear: Going forward, the cross-party support for a judicial appointee that used to be taken for granted could now carry consequences for their own careers. Sotomayor is confirmed by the Senate in August 2009, with only nine of 68 “yes” votes coming from Republicans.
November 2010: Quickly shifting political winds leave the NRA behind the right-wing vanguard. With the Tea Party on the rise, the organization pours almost half a million dollars into backing dozens of conservative Democrats who have proven themselves to be reliable supporters of gun rights. The spending draws condemnation from prominent conservative websites.
On election day, enough Tea Party upstarts win their races to return control of the House to the GOP. The victories ensure a new era of political polarization and ideological purity, making 2010 the last election cycle in which the NRA maintains any real connection to the Democratic party.
May 2012:The NRA takes what it calls the “rare” step of opposing an incumbent Republican, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, citing his vote for the assault weapons ban and his decision to defy the NRA’s wishes and vote for the confirmation of Obama Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. NRA ads bash Lugar’s SCOTUS votes in particular as the group backs his right-wing challenger, Richard Mourdock.
While Lugar’s moderate fiscal record also costs him support amid a growing anti-tax, anti-deficit hysteria, the NRA’s involvement undoubtedly helps Mourdock cruise to victory with 60.5 percent of the primary vote. That message-sending win is erased months later when the moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly handily wins the general election after Mourdock calls pregnancies resulting from rape “a gift from God.”
April 2013:Five months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey introduce an amendment that would expand background checks to cover firearms purchases conducted at gun shows and over the Internet. The measure requires 60 votes to proceed, which means the sponsors will need support from at least five Republicans.
Democrats find only three GOP members — Mark Kirk, John McCain, and Susan Collins — willing to join them, while four of their party colleagues break the other way. The proposal falls short, attracting 54 votes.
The Republican-run House never holds even a committee hearing on companion background check legislation.
Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor, up for re-election in Virginia, has maintained an excellent pro-gun voting record, and has the NRA’s endorsement to show for it. But in 2013, Cantor had suggested the national background check system could be improved by better incorporating mental health records, a statement that NAGR twists into a series of television attack ads. One claims that the congressman “says Republicans should support Obama’s gun control,” and other alerts viewers, “Cantor wants to herd even more gun owners into a federal registration system.”
In a stunning defeat, Cantor loses the primary to David Brat, an ultra-conservative academic who has never held public office. NAGR takes credit for the victory.
November 2014: Even as Cantor’s loss is nudging the Republican establishment to the right, the NRA is shoring up its place within the GOP firmament. By the end of the 2014 election cycle, its independent expenditures — ads supporting or opposing candidates in federal elections, but not given directly to a campaign — reach $31.7 million, by far the largest sum in its history. None of that money is spent in support of Democrats. Direct contributions are piddling: $38,000 is directed to just 12 Democratic House candidates.
The NRA even blacklists Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, one of five Democrats to vote against Manchin-Toomey. Instead, the NRA spends millions of dollars promoting his Republican challenger, Representative Tom Cotton, who wins by 17 percentage points.
June 2015: In June, the Supreme Court hands down a landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, ruling that states may no longer restrict to the right to marry to heterosexual couples. The decision caps a sea change in social mores and legal thinking on gay rights — and largely removes a litmus test issue from national politics.
But multiple polls show that even as conservative voters have inched toward the middle on gay marriage (along with immigration), they are moving rightward on guns.
September 2015: Gun Owners of America, a no-compromise gun lobbying joining NAGR in challenging the NRA, endorses Texas Senator Ted Cruz for president. That same month, during a primary debate, Cruz boasts of the endorsement on national television.
It is an unprecedented statement. GOA is an extremist organization — for decades, it has been affiliated with the anti-government militia movement and white supremacists. But in a crowded primary field, it also makes strategic sense: Republican candidates have so wholly absorbed the NRA’s platform that moving to the right of the gun group is the only way to stand out.
May 2015: The NRA endorses Donald Trump at its annual convention — with the GOP presidential candidate still two months away from securing the party’s official nomination.
I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2016
In the two previous cycles, the NRA had withheld its endorsements of John McCain and Mitt Romney until much closer to election day, with the timing seen as a way of maintaining leverage over the nominees should they be tempted to tack towards the center on gun policy. When it comes to the Second Amendment, some NRA members consider Trump untrustworthy and expect the group to extract a greater show of loyalty before bestowing its blessing.
Before entering electoral politics, Trump had backed an assault weapons ban. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, he lauded President Barack Obama’s gun reform speech, saying Obama “spoke for me and every American.” To critics within the gun world, the NRA’s notabaly early endorsement indicates that the group is more interested in preserving its relationship with the Republican party than sticking to its guns.
[Photo: Mark Cornelison via Getty Images]