February 14, 2005
HIGH CALIBER ADVOCACY
How the NRA won the fight over gun rights
JOHN J. MILLER
“When I was growing up in Tennessee, we had a saying for something that was so outrageous nobody could believe it: ‘That dog don’t hunt,'” says Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist of the National Rifle Association. The old phrase came back to him a couple of years ago, as Cox was plotting the NRA’s strategy for 2004. “I knew the Democrats were going to go after the pro-gun vote, and I knew their efforts would be full of bald-faced lies. We had to figure out a way to expose them.”
So Cox visualized a dog that didn’t hunt. He came up with the concept of a French poodle with a pink ribbon in its exquisitely groomed fur, wearing a sweater bearing the name of the Democratic presidential candidate. Beneath this picture would be Cox’s boyhood aphorism. It was bound to be a clever ad, but then Democratic primary voters did something to turn it into a perfect one: They nominated John Kerry, the senator with puffed-up hair and “French” looks.
In doing so, they helped the NRA launch one of the most effective and memorable images from the 2004 election. For a few weeks last fall, the Kerry poodle was America’s most famous canine — a political version of the Taco Bell Chihuahua. It became the centerpiece image in a “No quiero John Kerry” campaign that included more than 6 million postcards and letters, nearly as many fliers and bumper stickers, and an expensive media campaign made up of 28,000 television commercials, 20,000 radio spots, 1,700 newspaper ads, and more than 500 billboard messages. “Nothing kills Democratic candidates’ prospects more than guns,” concluded New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “If it weren’t for guns, President-elect Kerry might now be conferring with incoming Senate Majority Leader Daschle.”
That may be an overstatement, but not by much. Kerry and Daschle were the NRA’s top two targets and both lost. The NRA’s vote counters say they also returned a bipartisan pro-gun majority to the House and increased their standing in the Senate by at least four seats (and possibly five, depending on whether Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado votes the way he promised). As a result, the defenders of gun rights are in as strong a position today as ever before. “The politics of this issue have changed 180 degrees in the last four years,” says Cox.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way — or so thought many liberals throughout the 1990s, when they became convinced that gun control was an unbeatable issue for them. Bill Clinton certainly agreed. In his first year as president, he abandoned the gun-friendly credentials he had built up as governor of Arkansas and signed the Brady Bill, which required background checks and five-day waiting periods before the purchase of guns. Encouraged by this early success, which involved overcoming the objections of NRA lobbyists, Clinton pushed an assault-weapons ban as part of a major crime bill the next year. It was a policy mirage: The term “assault weapon” was an invention that referred more to a gun’s appearance than its performance, and most semi-automatic rifles weren’t even affected by it. But to Clinton such details didn’t matter. He was a master of the micro-initiative, and he was confident he could rout the NRA once more — and look good to voters as he did it.
The NRA didn’t like the Brady Bill, but it loathed the gun ban. Its efforts on Capitol Hill were so vigorous that the two top Democrats in the House even asked Clinton to back off. Many of their colleagues from rural areas had bucked the NRA on the Brady Bill and couldn’t afford to let it happen again, warned Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt. Yet the president ignored their pleas. The gun ban passed and Clinton signed it into law. In his 2004 memoir, My Life, Clinton recounted his talk with Foley and Gephardt and summed it up with three words he has never had an easy time saying: “I was wrong.”
It would have been difficult to make any other kind of claim because the GOP’s historic takeover of Congress followed two months later. “The NRA had a great night,” wrote Clinton. “We got the living daylights beat out of us.” He wasn’t wrong about that. Although gun rights weren’t mentioned in Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the NRA was an essential partner in the Republican triumph. By one estimate, the gun group defeated 19 of the 24 incumbent House members on its target list. The assault-weapons ban had backfired.
Many Democrats nevertheless insisted that they remained right on the politics but had somehow mishandled the anti-gun message. Instead of accepting the NRA as a mainstream organization whose devoted membership included rural Democrats and union members — voters who belonged in their own base — they settled on a strategy of demonization. Their task was made much simpler after the Oklahoma City bombing in early 1995. From Clinton on down, Democratic politicians and commentators blamed conservatives for inciting Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism with anti-government rhetoric. An NRA fundraising letter quickly became Exhibit A: It had referred to federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.”
That provocative phrase owed its existence to Democratic congressman John Dingell of Michigan, who had used the term “jack-booted group of fascists” to describe officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in an NRA documentary some years earlier. Yet such details were lost in a maelstrom of controversy over the phrase. The NRA’s credibility suffered and former president Bush even resigned his lifetime membership. In an instant, the anti-gun groups appeared to neutralize much of the advantage the NRA had gained from its election victories. The pro-gun forces scaled back on their legislative ambitions and prepared to play defense instead. The NRA spent much of its time talking about its safety and educational courses rather than the politics of guns.
The NRA also began rethinking some of its traditional strategies, starting with leadership. In 1997, Charlton Heston joined the group’s board and the next year became its president. His elevation — and the personal activism that came with it — provided a huge lift. “He gave the NRA a tremendous boost in credibility,” says Gary Lawrence, a California-based pollster who has worked with the NRA for decades. Before Heston, NRA press conferences were virtually empty. But when Heston called them on the NRA’s behalf, they were standing-room-only media events.
The NRA also knew from Lawrence’s research that it could draw on a deep reservoir of public support. Its own surveys routinely showed that more than 80 percent of Americans consider gun ownership a basic right. And although half will claim they’re for stricter gun control, many don’t feel strongly about it. Their convictions begin to erode as soon as they learn about specific proposals, and very few believe that gun restrictions control crime. “We see this in our focus groups all the time,” says Lawrence. “There’s a distinct group of people who don’t think gun control reduces crime but at the same time feel the need to be doing something about guns.” This makes them vulnerable to counterarguments: One the NRA began to employ to great effect in the late 1990s was that the Clinton administration wasn’t enforcing the gun laws already on the books — what good would it do to add more?
Support for gun control tends to spike after catastrophes, and a big one struck in the spring of 1999, at Columbine High School. Senate Democrats immediately demanded to close what they called the “gun-show loophole,” the ability of non-dealers to buy or trade guns with other individuals at gun shows without cumbersome federal oversight, just as they would if they were in private homes. The vote came to a 50-50 tie, allowing Vice President Gore to break it with much fanfare. “I personally would like to dedicate my tie-breaking vote to all of the families that have suffered from gun violence,” he trumpeted. At the time, his vote was seen as an important piece of publicity as he prepared to emerge from Clinton’s shadow and run for president. Liberal pundits hailed him.
A month after Gore’s vote, however, the House refused to follow suit. It accepted the NRA’s logic about the futility of new gun laws. Yet a compromise with the Senate was still possible. Some Republicans insist that the Clinton administration might have struck a deal over the gun shows but became less interested in a legislative accomplishment than in keeping the issue alive for Gore. “They moved the goal posts on us about 42 times,” complains a former House Judiciary lawyer who was involved in the negotiations. Once again, Democrats thought that gun control was a ticket to success, especially among jittery soccer moms who just wanted to keep their kids safe at school.
By now, Gore was becoming so associated with gun control that the NRA was able to reconsider its standard election-year practice of focusing on congressional races. “We went from a bottom-up to a top-down strategy,” says Tom Edmonds, a longtime media consultant to the NRA. “We concentrated on Gore and the presidential race and let everything else trickle down.” This approach was possible because Gore had become well known for his hostility to guns; in one forum, he spoke of “a kind of sickness at the very heart of the NRA.” Two months later, gun-control groups organized a large rally on the National Mall, which they called the Million Mom March. “The NRA is buying votes with blood money,” declared talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell, who spoke at the rally.
The shrill words of Gore and O’Donnell startled gun owners. NRA membership surged to an all-time high of 4.3 million. Heston became a fixture on the campaign trail. His organization devoted many of its resources appealing to Democrats in key states. Chuck Cunningham, the NRA’s director of federal affairs, wrote a letter to Michigan auto workers and West Virginia coal miners that addressed Gore’s environmental record in addition to his support for gun control. “Keep your job and your Second Amendment rights,” it said. These and similar messages cost Gore dearly in states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia. If the vice president had carried just one of them, he would have become president.
Gore’s defeat convinced many Democrats that guns were a serious vulnerability for their party. Labor leaders complained loudly that the gun issue was creating problems for them in their union halls. The country’s foremost anti-gun group switched its name from the highly suggestive Handgun Control, Inc. to the less confrontational Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. During the 2002 campaigns, Democratic candidates showed off their hunting licenses. Later, presidential candidate Howard Dean even touted his pro-gun views — and didn’t appear to suffer among primary voters. The entire gun-control movement looked determined to avoid another debacle. It would do everything it could to hold on to Democrats who bolted their party over guns.
The Democrats would have had trouble nominating a more anti-gun candidate than John Kerry. From the NRA’s standpoint, Kerry had one of the longest and worst voting records in the Senate. But unlike Gore, he had never taken a high profile on the issue. Many voters actually assumed he was a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights because he was a military veteran. What’s more, the NRA’s opposition researchers had found Gore’s speeches to be a target-rich environment for anti-gun rhetoric; Kerry had been much more circumspect — there was a line from 1993 expressing a desire for special taxes on guns and ammo, and little else. Kerry was for tighter gun control, but he had not made it a theme of his career.
And so Kerry entered the 2004 campaign with some important assets. He bolstered them on a hunting excursion in Iowa months before the Democratic caucuses, providing his campaign with plenty of pictures of himself holding a double-barreled shotgun and inspecting a dead pheasant. These would turn up again and again on his website and in brochures sent to gun owners in swing states. The goal was not to convince Republicans to support Kerry so much as to stop Democrats from supporting Bush. The AFL-CIO even stole a line from Cunningham’s NRA letter of 2000 and reversed it: “In this election, my gun is safe. But my job isn’t.”
For a while, this was successful. “We found that Kerry’s lies to gun owners were working,” says Cox. “Nobody in the NRA bought into them because they were reading our publications, but a lot of other gun owners did. Many actually thought Kerry was for fewer restrictions on guns.”
The poodle ads had been devised to address this precise problem. Over the summer, Lawrence assembled focus groups to test their effectiveness. The results were overwhelmingly positive, and the NRA decided to invest millions on the concept. By October, the poodle was plastered all over the battleground states. “I even saw it painted on the side of a barn in Minnesota,” says Cox.
Try as he might, Kerry just couldn’t live down his extensive voting record. When the senator went goose-hunting in Ohio less than two weeks before the election, the NRA took out an ad in a local newspaper and called him “daffy.” The Bush campaign mocked him as well: Vice President Cheney referred to Kerry’s hunting clothes as an “October disguise.” Kerry even became the butt of jokes on late-night television: Jay Leno accused him of trying “to be all things to all people” — a sure sign that the NRA’s message was working. Guns were suddenly one of the most important differences between Bush and Kerry. “In West Virginia, people look to see where you stand on life, marriage, and guns,” says Joe Manchin, the newly elected governor of that state, a Democrat with conservative views on social issues. “If you’re on the wrong side of just one or two of those issues, you’ve got a problem. If you’re on the wrong side of all three, you’re mortally wounded.”
In the new Congress, the NRA has a realistic hope for the first time in a decade that it can enact pro-gun legislation. There are about 50 pro-gun Democrats in the House and about a dozen in the Senate. With this dynamic, the NRA believes President Bush may soon have an opportunity to protect gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits and repeal the District of Columbia’s gun ban.
But has the broader Democratic party learned a lesson from the Gore and Kerry experiences?
A few weeks after Bush’s election, one Democrat offered a reason for his party’s failure: its refusal to support the Second Amendment. “If I could re-invent the world, Saturday night specials wouldn’t exist,” said congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. “It’s not about whether it’s worth achieving federal handgun control on the federal level because we can’t achieve it on the federal level.” His advice, as distilled by the New York Times: “Liberals should give up at gun control.”
The article ran in the December 22 edition of the Times. The year was 1988. It raises an obvious question: Will those dogs ever learn to hunt?