You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

This Is How the NRA Ends

A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived

Associated Press

On April 17, the bill to expand background checks on gun buyers failed in the Senate, and the fatalistic shrugs in Washington were so numerous they were nearly audible. The legislation had been a modest bipartisan compromise, supported by 90 percent of the public and lobbied for hard by the president. A group backed by Michael Bloomberg had spent $12 million on ads pressuring senators to vote “yes.” When the bill fell short—by just five votes—it seemed to confirm a Beltway article of faith: There’s no point messing with the National Rifle Association (NRA). And that, many assumed, was the last we’d be hearing about gun reform.

But then something unexpected happened. Some of the senators who’d voted “no” faced furious voters back home. Even before Erica Lafferty, the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung, confronted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte at a particularly tense town hall, Ayotte’s disapproval rating in the state had jumped from 35 to 46 percent—half the respondents said her “no” vote made them less likely to support her.1 In Pennsylvania, which has the second-highest concentration of NRA members in the country, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Pat Toomey, saw his approval reach a record high. One of the country’s best-known gun-rights advocates, Robert Levy, said the NRA’s “stonewalling of the background-check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively.”2

In the Senate, the backlash had an effect. Some Republicans who had opposed the bill, such as Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, signaled they might be open to changing their minds. Majority Leader Harry Reid, once a dependable NRA ally, spoke about taking the rare step of bringing the bill back for another vote. Senator Joe Manchin, the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, is still actively courting support from his colleagues. “It’s not going away,” he told me.

Why did these developments take so many elected officials and pundits by surprise? As New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has pointed out, political science research shows that politicians consistently overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. But in this case, there was something more debilitating at work. The political class often lets old assumptions blind it to shifting realities.3 And the absolute power of the NRA is one of the oldest and least-tested assumptions in Washington.

Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin says his gun reform bill is “not going away.”

The NRA, of course, has real clout. Like many other groups, it lobbies in Washington and state capitals, buys ads and deploys activists during elections, and maintains a ratings system that grades elected officials and candidates on their support for its goals. What sets the NRA apart is its relentless invocation of the Second Amendment, the single-mindedness of its supporters, and the inchoate nature of its hold on politicians. Its approval has come to signify not merely support for gun ownership, but American authenticity. For many in Congress, it’s “a cultural thing,” says one veteran Senate staffer. “You have to pass a cultural test for [constituents] to listen to you on the other stuff.”

And yet for some time now, the NRA’s power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact. Gun ownership is declining—from half of households in the 1970s to a third today. A slew of senators and governors have won campaigns in red or purple states despite NRA F ratings, including Tim Kaine (Virginia), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bill Nelson (Florida), who has campaigned on gun control but has won majorities even in deeply conservative Panhandle counties. Senator Chris Murphy, a rookie Connecticut Democrat who has taken a lead on the issue since the Newtown massacre, points out that, of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost. “The NRA is just all mythology,” he says. “The NRA does not win elections anymore.”

The reason for the gap between perception and reality is that, for many years, the NRA has had no real opposition. This has given the debate a strange quality: For gun-control advocates, the recent challenge has been less about persuading politicians on policy grounds and more about trying to convince them that the conventional wisdom about gun politics is wrong.

Courtest of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.

And then came Newtown. We are so resigned to seeing mass shootings come and go without any attempt to fix gun laws, but after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, something really did change. At long last and against all expectations, a viable movement for gun regulation is emerging. It is a development that not only bodes ill for the gun lobby and its Republican patrons, but will also complicate matters for elements of the Democratic Party who have been content to accede to the status quo. The narrow defeat of the background-check bill, it turns out, was not the end of hopes for gun reform, but the beginning.

The de facto headquarters for post-Newtown gun-control activism is New York City Hall, where the effort overlaps relatively seamlessly with the business of running a metropolis of eight million people. Bloomberg and his lieutenants were disappointed by the background-check vote, but not discouraged. After all, they now knew which senators to target in 2014. “The mayor has a long view,” says Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s political point person on the issue. “He is well aware that the NRA had the field to themselves for decades, and you don’t overcome those advantages overnight.”

The modern gun-control movement emerged in the early ’70s in reaction to the urban crime wave and the assassinations of 1968; it was led by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence) and the National Council to Control Handguns (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence).4 From the outset, its weaknesses were multiple and self-reinforcing. There were disagreements over whether to pursue incremental reforms or more ambitious proposals like handgun registration. And the movement has always been woefully outmatched financially. Gun-rights groups, funded by gun manufacturers, have given more than $30 million to federal candidates since 1989, compared with just under $2 million by their opponents.5

Gun control’s high point came in the early ’90s, when Congress passed the Brady law requiring background checks at gun dealerships and a ban on assault weapons. But in the 1994 midterms, Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, and Bill Clinton declared that it was the gun issue, more than any other, that was to blame. This was a self-serving explanation—Clinton’s first two years had seen the meltdown of health care reform and a string of scandals. But it was persuasive to a party panicked about the loss of Southern whites and Reagan Democrats. After 1994, Democrats committed themselves to a big-tent philosophy, and one of the largest spaces in the tent was reserved for those who sided with the gun lobby.

The last major push for regulations came after the Columbine massacre in 1999.6 Northeastern Democrats unsuccessfully tried to close the “gun-show loophole”—the exemption from background checks for non-licensed vendors.7 The next year, Al Gore’s loss of West Virginia and Tennessee was attributed to his reluctant talk of gun control in the primaries (never mind that those states were undergoing a long-term shift toward Republicans).8 After that, Democrats virtually went silent on the issue—thereby contributing as much to the NRA’s legend as conservatives ever did. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel proudly recruited pro-gun-rights Democrats for House races; three years later, as President Obama’s chief of staff, he infamously sent word that Attorney General Eric Holder needed to “shut the fuck up” after Holder proposed reinstating the ban on assault weapons, which had been allowed to lapse in 2004.9

But instead of increasing the pressure on politicians, gun-control advocates believed they could prevail through reason alone. While the NRA issued members voting instructions, their adversaries produced well-researched reports on gun violence. “We’ve always been too polite, by appealing to politicians to do the right thing, ... appealing to their conscience and hoping they’d come around even when the evidence suggested they wouldn’t,” says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “We went too far into the realm of educating the public and ceded the field of politics to the NRA. That was disastrous for us.”

All along, though, the gun lobby’s vulnerabilities were there for a serious opponent to exploit. Long before Wayne LaPierre’s rambling press conference after Newtown, the NRA had barreled well out of the mainstream—take LaPierre’s 1995 characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” It has become increasingly easy to find gun owners openly critical of the organization’s extreme politics. And demographic trends have concentrated its most ardent members in ever-narrower regional pockets.

That serious opponent has finally emerged. In 2006, Bloomberg formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns with 14 of his counterparts. One of the group’s first moves was to dispatch undercover investigators to Virginia gun shops—the source of many guns on the streets of northern cities—where they recorded footage showing how easy it was to make illegal purchases.10 In 2010, Bloomberg hired Wolfson, a hard-bitten veteran of three Hillary Clinton campaigns. Listening to the mayor’s team discuss gun control is very different from talking to longtime advocates—the conversations are an odd mash-up of the ruthlessness of campaign hacks and a moral crusade. For an administration that has made its share of ethical compromises—disregarding term limits, pulverizing opponents with the mayor’s personal fortune—gun control has become the ultimate validation.

What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA. There is plenty of latent public support for gun control, his logic goes, but politicians only see a risk in voting for it. He wants to reverse that calculation.

To that end, Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.

Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. “He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,” says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks.11 And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.

Pryor is no NRA favorite—he had a C- rating before the vote—while Begich is a former member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But Wolfson emphasized that only their votes on the bill counted. “It will be critical to ensure that people who voted for it are reelected, and people who voted against it pay an electoral price,” he says. I asked Wolfson if he was worried that going after Pryor—whom they regard as especially vulnerable—would simply lead to his replacement with a pro-NRA Republican. “The fact that a Republican would get elected is irrelevant to our cause,” says Wolfson. “On this issue, a Republican would not be worse.”

The Brady Campaign is adopting a similarly hard-line stance. Last year, it appointed a new director, Dan Gross, whose brother suffered brain damage in the 1997 Empire State Building shooting. In May, I visited him at his Washington office, where Brady visitors need special clearance to board the elevator. Gross stressed that the question of whether his group’s activities might jeopardize Democratic seats is “not our primary concern.” “Part of the change I’ve been implementing is going back to our essence as a single-issue organization and holding everybody accountable on the same terms,” he says. “We’re not an arm of the DNC.”

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

In my conversations with advocates, many remarked on the unity that has emerged after Newtown. The movement soon coalesced around expanding background checks, although taking on assault weapons or ammunition clips would have been a more direct response to recent mass shootings. But police chiefs say background checks would have the biggest impact on gun violence. (An estimated 40 percent of sales are made without them.) 14  This harmony may be harder to preserve in the future—Giffords’s organization represents gun owners interested in moderate regulations, while other groups want more aggressive reforms. But for now, they’re coordinating on a near-hourly basis. “I’ve been working with the different groups for many years, and they could never focus on the one thing we were trying to do,” says Representative Carolyn McCarthy, the New York Democrat whose husband was killed in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad. “This time everybody’s come together.”

Twitter/Natalie Tejeda
Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sportscaster killed in the Aurora shooting.

Starting with background checks also proved crucial in winning allies within the centrist establishment, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Bill Daley, the former Clinton commerce secretary and Obama administration chief of staff. It’s hard to overstate the value of such endorsements for a movement that has been written off for so long. After the vote, Daley wrote an uncharacteristically passionate Washington Post op-ed demanding that Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who voted against the bill, return his $2,500 campaign contribution. (He received it in the mail a few days later, without a note.) Famously cautious, Daley is an advocate of the big-tent approach and wary of what he calls “left-wing loony” gun proposals. But the background-check measure, he told me, was such a reasonable reform, it should have been a no-brainer. “If you can’t prevent gangbangers having front purchasers at gun shows, and all the backdoor gun sales at these shows, then it’s just bullshit,” Daley told me. “Historically, it’s been: ‘You can’t be for this, it’s a third rail.’ Rahm and all that. At some point, though, I think the mood is changing.”

In 2010, Jessica Ghawi was interning on a sports-radio show when she was dispatched to interview a minor league hockey player with the San Antonio Rampage. She showed up in heels and a dress, not realizing the interview was to be conducted on ice. Seconds after stepping onto the rink, she fell flat on her back. Vivacious and good-natured, Ghawi burst out laughing and gamely got on her feet. Then she went down again. And again. A blooper reel went viral on YouTube, much to her distress. “She was crying. She said, ‘I’ve ruined my career, and it hasn’t even begun,’” recalls her mother, Sandy Phillips. “I told her: ‘No, darling. That’s going to open doors for you, because of the way you laughed your way through it.’ And sure enough, that’s what happened.”

Ghawi got into the sports-broadcasting program she coveted, in Denver. Last June, on vacation in Toronto, she was at a shopping mall when a gunman killed two people in the food court. “I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given,” she wrote on her blog. And then it happened again. The next month, she went to see the new Batman movie at a theater in suburban Aurora. That night, James Holmes opened fire on the audience, killing twelve—including Ghawi, whom he shot in the head with a military-style AR-15 rifle.

Phillips, a 63-year-old tourism consultant, and her retired husband had never thought much about firearms laws before. They owned a shotgun they’d never used but that gave them a sense of security. “You hear that click-click of a shotgun, and you’re going to think twice,” she says. After Ghawi’s death, they were stunned to discover gun regulations were so lax: Holmes had purchased his massive arsenal legally. But it didn’t occur to the couple to become activists.

Five months later, Phillips and her husband were about to fly from San Antonio to Denver to collect their daughter’s posthumous degree when they heard early reports of the Newtown shootings. When they landed, Phillips checked her phone. As she learned the horrific details, she was grateful they were seated in the very back of the plane. “I was close to hysterical, and you don’t want anyone to see you that out of control,” she told me. “It was: ‘Oh my God, what do we do, we have to do something.’” By the end of the day, Mayors Against Illegal Guns had contacted them. They got on a plane to New York for a meeting and then took a train to Washington. She and her husband now work full time for the Brady Campaign. She’s an organizer for family members of victims; he’s a liaison to fellow gun owners.

The Denver Post/Getty Images
Sandy Phillips, mother of Jessica Ghawi, is now a full-time activist.

For years, the gun-control movement’s biggest problem has been its inability to marshal a grassroots network to match the dedicated members of the NRA, who show up at town halls when there’s no gun vote anywhere on the horizon.15 This is known as the intensity gap: While plenty of people support stricter gun laws, few advocated for them or voted on the issue unless they had been personally affected by gun violence. Which only underscores the power of Newtown.

Shannon Watts, a mother of five and former communications executive, was sitting at home in Indianapolis after the Sandy Hook massacre feeling “just completely outraged and sad,” she says. She went online looking for some equivalent to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. When she couldn’t find anything, she decided to start one herself, and created a Facebook page for “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” Within one day, it had 1,000 “likes”; by week’s end, it had 7,000. It now has 100,000—with 100 chapters in 40 states.

Watts was swamped with offers of assistance, including one from Jennifer Fiore, a former AOL employee in Washington, D.C. Fiore offered the free services of her husband’s business, BlastRoots, which provides digital organizing tools. Via the group’s page, Fiore circulated a petition calling for reforms and a prompt for e-mailing lawmakers. The response crashed BlastRoots’s servers. The organization is now called Moms Demand Action and sends representatives to White House meetings and coordinates with established groups. Fiore is its full-time lobbyist on Capitol Hill, while her husband takes leave from work to care for their three children.

Like many other members of the group, Fiore, who is 42, has no close connection to gun violence, and was deeply abashed about how little attention she’d previously paid to gun laws. From the start, this cohort struck even Columbine-era advocates as something new. “I’ve been doing this for thirteen years, and I’ve never seen anything approaching the level we’ve had since Newtown,” says Everitt. Another veteran of the cause told me: “I am frightened by these women. They’re mad, they’re angry.”

Before the background-check vote, 240 women from 38 states flew to Washington on their own dimes to visit their senators’ offices.16 Their message, Fiore says, was that they were the “mainstream,” disgusted with the status quo. Watts met her senator, Joe Donnelly, a conservative first-term Democrat, and told him her group already had 3,000 members in Indiana. Donnelly was one of six senators with NRA A ratings to support the bill.

The defeat did not, as pundits predicted, cause the activists’ momentum to dissipate. Instead, it turned out to be a potent recruiting tool. In the days after the vote, Moms Demand Action saw a 30 percent increase in membership. Giffords’s group has raised an astonishing $11 million from 53,500 donors in the past four months. Moms Demand Action has continued to hold protests at the district offices of lawmakers they believe are persuadable. (Their specialty is the “stroller jam,” where moms with strollers and small kids cluster in a corridor or office to make their presence felt.) Bloomberg is assisting this effort by covering travel costs and helping groups bring on family members and survivors as full-time staff.

The groups plan to grow their ranks in key states: Moms Demand Action has chapters in Montana, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, but none in Nevada and Alaska, where activities have been coordinated by a woman from Palo Alto. Following the NRA’s example, they intend to deploy members to confront lawmakers in their districts, regardless of whether gun votes are on the horizon. Also like the NRA, they want to create single-issue voters by zeroing in on women in their circles and social-media networks who usually don’t vote in midterms but who might be mobilized to do so around gun safety. And at least some are determined to become as loud as the other side. Patricia Maisch, who witnessed the Giffords shooting, was ejected from the Senate gallery for hollering “shame on you” after the vote.“I’m for being as loud and noisy and pushy and obnoxious as necessary,” she says, “to let them know it’s not going to go away.”17

Already, there are signs they’re having an impact. The NRA paid for ads claiming Ayotte really did support strengthening background checks. (She favored a far weaker measure.) This line has since been adopted by Flake and others, suggesting the gun lobby realizes it might have played a bad hand. McCarthy said she could tell that her House colleagues in swing districts, including Republicans, were watching the gun-control activists closely. So is the White House, which claims it saw the background-check bill as only the first step in a longer-term fight. “All these things take a bite out of the conventional wisdom that guns are only a bad issue for Democrats to do something about common-sense measures, that it’s a death knell, that there’s no backlash on the other side,” says one White House official.

It is unclear when Reid might introduce the bill again—possibly between the July 4 and August recesses. In anticipation of a House vote, Moms Demand Action members in upstate New York are meeting with their Republican representatives. Other groups are targeting Eric Cantor, whose suburban Richmond district is surprisingly supportive, according to polls conducted by Bloomberg’s group. (Eighty-five percent of Virginians backed the proposal in a mid-May Washington Post poll.) Billboards have gone up in his district, and on one trip to Washington, Sandy Phillips met with Cantor. “I had Cantor in tears,” she told me. “When you start a conversation out and say: ‘You have a daughter. I had a daughter. Would you like to see her killed the way mine was killed?’ And then you go into a description. Cantor had his head down like he was saying, ‘I don’t want to hear this, I don’t want to hear this.’ And I said, ‘Imagine if it’s your daughter pinned down with nowhere to go, and she gets shot six times, and the sixth one takes her brain.’ ... I knew he didn’t want to be there, but he did listen.”

In May, I went to a forum in McLean, Virginia, held by a local group, Concerned Citizens Against Gun Violence. McLean is a moneyed enclave favored by Washington’s conservative elite—and yet here were nearly 100 people who had come to strategize on gun reforms. Jim Lynch, a “conservative, independent, libertarian,” rose to say that a government’s “most sacred duty is to protect the lives of its citizens, in particular young, innocent children.” Ruth Hoffman, a Kansas-born Republican who voted for Mitt Romney, said she was politicized by seeing her first-grade daughter’s anxiety after Newtown. Her teacher now locks the classroom door and assigns a student “butler” to open it to sanctioned visitors.

So far, the group has collected 2,400 signatures for a petition urging their House member, Republican Frank Wolf, to support gun-control measures. They’ve also been pressuring Senator Mark Warner, who supported expanding background checks, to drop his NRA-friendly stances on assault weapons, ammunition-clip limits, and allowing people with concealed-carry permits to bear weapons in other states. Warner’s chief of staff, Luke Albee, told the group, “We’ve heard a lot of criticism of some of the votes Senator Warner cast.” When he announced that Warner was “rethinking” his stance on the concealed-carry issue, the audience cheered.

There are very few genuine converts in politics, which is why Joe Manchin’s recent journey has been so surprising. Manchin was the unlikeliest of champions for the background-check expansion. In a 2010 campaign ad, he blasts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obamacare, and federal spending. Then, vowing to “protect our Second Amendment rights,” he fires a rifle at a sheaf of paper labeled “cap and trade bill.” Manchin was the only Senate Democrat to oppose repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; in 2012, he ostentatiously declined to say whether he’d vote for Obama. What’s remarkable is not just that he sponsored the background-check bill, but that when it failed, he kept on campaigning.

In May, I drove to the far southern reaches of West Virginia to see what kind of reaction he was getting back home. In person, Manchin is a bluff throwback pol, a carpet-store owner’s son who went to college on a football scholarship. When I talked to him about Newtown, he still sounded shaken. “My God, you had babies slaughtered,” he said. He explained that he pushed to expand background checks because he believed something had to be done, and he thought legislation would have a better chance if its sponsors came “from gun culture.”

That day, Manchin was visiting coal counties Obama had lost by 40 and 55 percentage points. In a courthouse in Pineville, he talked about the region’s opiate-abuse problem and groused for a while about the “so-called EPA” before casually easing into background checks. “I’ve heard people say it’s gun control. It’s not gun control—it’s gun sense,” he said. “All we’re saying is, if you go to a gun show, we should do the same as if you went to a gun shop—that everyone should be treated the same. ... I have to assume law-abiding gun owners don’t want criminals to have guns.” At question time, there were only a couple of comments on the bill, both positive.

Things were tougher at the next stop. Manchin hadn’t finished his summary of the legislation when he was interrupted by four men in the back row and an elderly woman sitting alone. “How does your bill make these students or any other students more safe?” shouted the woman. A man wearing a black NRA t-shirt with a picture of an AR-15 rifle, yelled, “If one of those teachers had been armed, he could’ve stopped this.” A moment later: “Why pass another gun law when there are already fifty thousand gun laws on the books?” And: “What part of ‘do not infringe’ do you not understand?”

Courtesy of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
An ad produced by Moms Demand Action.

Manchin tried to reason with them. He noted that a recent Al Qaeda tape urged would-be terrorists to load up on arms at American gun shows. They would have none of it—soon they were railing about the “Operation Fast and Furious” scandal, “abortions killing thirty thousand babies a day,” and so on.

Manchin changed direction. “We might just have to respectfully disagree,” he said and went on to implicitly rebuke some of his colleagues. “The worst thing that can happen to me or anybody in public office is that, ... if you vote against us, we get to come home to our family,” he said. “But for me to do what I know is right ... and [then to say] I’m scared because someone is going to portray that as I done something else?” If disingenuous criticism could stop him from taking action, he concluded, “there’s no need for me to be there—there’s no need to run for public office.”

A few other voices started chiming in on his behalf. One woman said she was a “gun person” but agreed with the need for background checks. Another said: “I have my gun to protect me from the drug dealers next door, and no one’s coming for my gun. This is called common-sense law.” When the elderly woman yelled at him again, Manchin suggested, smiling, that she might be happier moving to Texas.

By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him. After all, polls had found a vast majority of West Virginians supported his proposal. If he could pull this off in West Virginia, surely his colleagues could manage it in New Hampshire or Montana. And if Bloomberg and the mom-activists get their way, they may soon have to. “Sure, you get a few [opponents], and I understand that,” Manchin told me. “But it’s not the majority. The majority support a reasonable, responsible approach to what we’re doing. But you gotta be willing to come out here and talk about it. If you won’t talk about it, you got problems."

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.

  1. Lafferty asked Ayotte: "You had mentioned that day the burden on the owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would cause. I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t as important?” After Ayotte offered a highly opaque reply, Lafferty turned and walked out.

  2. Levy is not just any gun-rights advocate. He was the winning lawyer in DC v. Heller, the case that overturned D.C.'s strict gun laws as unconstitutional."

  3. For another example of this tendency, see the punditocracy's underestimation of minority voter turnout in the 2012 election.

  4. These were the events driving the movement's origins. The spirit that infused it, meanwhile, was very much a carry-over from the civil rights and nonviolence movements of the decade prior.

  5. This is just counting direct contributions to federal candidates and their PACs. The NRA has spent an additional $25 million in independent expenditures on behalf of federal candidates.

  6. Despite his faulting of gun control for the 1994 wipeout, Clinton was behind efforts later in the decade to close the gun-show loophole.

  7. The legislation passed the Senate but failed in the House, where the NRA deftly peeled off support with a weaker alternative proposed by powerful Michigan Democrat John Dingell, a former NRA board member.

  8. Bill Bradley, a rarity in his party, made aggressive gun control regulations a central plank in his primary platform, forcing Gore to take up the issue.

  9. Emanuel has of course more recently struck a different note on gun control, as mayor of a big city suffering the effects of gun violence.

  10. Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (now governor) sent Bloomberg a cease-and-desist letter (pdf) demanding that he halt the stings.

  11. Mayors Against Illegal Guns' top political consultant in Washington, Bill Knapp, advised the 2008 campaigns of both women.

  12. The Bloomberg group's ad against Flake was particularly powerful: In it, the mother of a young man killed in the Aurora shooting accuses Flake of going back on his written promise to her to expand background checks.

  13. As Jeff Flake, who is not up for reelection until 2018, recently crowed: "That's the beauty of a six-year term."

  14. This estimate is, as gun-rights advocates like to note, based on a 16-year-old report. However, gun-control advocates believe the figure may be even higher. In Michigan, a fairly representative state that requires background checks for all commercial sales, about half of purchases are not at licensed dealers.

  15. One exception to this was the Million Mom March in 2000, a response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center. The organization created around the event was eventually subsumed into the Brady Campaign; some chapters went fallow, but others remain active today.

  16. In justifying their votes against the bill, several senators said they simply got far more calls from pro-NRA constituents. This was surely true in some cases. A Pew poll released May 23 suggests, though, that the gun control held its own in this department more than in the past: nearly the same proportion of pro-gun control respondents said they had contacted a representative about the bill (9 percent) as did pro-gun rights proponents (11 percent.)

  17. Maisch, a heating and air-conditioning business owner who helped subdue the Tucson shooter, told me she was planning on simply walking out after the vote. But the sight of the senators smiling and shaking hands in their "little safe cocoon" got the better of her.