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NRA Hits the Legislative Trail With Guns Blazing

From the perspective of gun control advocates, the playing field is upside down. Their nemesis, the 138-year-old National Rifle Association, seems more powerful than ever.

Instead of a Democratic trifecta lending gun control the upper hand, it has energized the NRA, whose membership has grown 30 percent since the November elections.

And the NRA has been on the attack.

“We do whatever is necessary to win,” said Andrew Arulanandam, NRA’s director of public affairs. “We are proactively pushing a number of measures.”

So far, the NRA has hit many of its targets.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill that would rein in credit card interest fees along with a Republican-sponsored amendment permitting concealed weapons in national parks. Another pro-gun measure has entangled a D.C. voting rights bill, proof that Democrats aren’t keen on voting against the gun lobby.

But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said those Democrats are living in the past, and predicted that Democratic pro-NRA sentiment would diminish.

This week, for example, progressive Members have aired their gripes over the pro-gun amendments coming out of the Senate.

And when a reporter asked Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday whether House Democrats could stand up to the NRA, Hoyer made a distinction between being “obligated” to the group and “agreeing” with its pro-gun positions.

“There may be ... Members who agree with them, but I would not use the word ... that they feel obligated to the NRA. They may agree with them, but there is a vast difference in those two positions.”

Helmke, however, noted that many Democratic Members who fear the gun lobby are misreading the political winds.

“In a way, they’re living in the past, living with this mythical ideal that gun control legislation was radioactive in the early ’90s,” he said. Still, Helmke acknowledges, it’s a challenging time for his side.

“It’s going to take a little while to work through that,” he said. “We’ve actually felt like we’d been making some progress over the last couple of election cycles — in ’06 and ’08, we don’t know anybody who lost ... because they were for common-sense gun control measures.”

At his acceptance speech in Denver, President-elect Barack Obama talked about protecting hunters’ rights while at the same time keeping assault weapons off the streets, Helmke added.

“I’m still hopeful that in the fall, after economic legislation is taken care of, the administration will support things like closing the gun show loophole and deal with military-style weapons that are available to the general public,” Helmke said.

Helmke and other gun-control groups are reaching out to new allies including environmental groups, mayoral associations, gay-rights organizations and other progressive causes that want to keep the pressure on Obama and Democrats.

“We definitely are talking to other groups that are going through these same frustrations with the new administration,” Helmke said. “We’re reaching out to other groups that want to make sure the progressive agenda doesn’t get pushed down the road too far.”

Arulanandam said the NRA expects it will play plenty of defense. Already it is against a bill introduced last week by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). Known as the No Fly, No Buy Act, the legislation would prohibit anyone on the no-fly list from purchasing a firearm.

Arulanandam said the NRA opposes the measure because innocent Americans have found themselves on the no-fly list and because terrorists could figure out if they’re being watched by seeing if they could purchase a firearm.

“In fact, there were a number of prominent lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, who were on the no-fly list,” Arulanandam said. “We think it’s wrong to deny someone a basic civil liberty, especially if that person is innocent.”

The NRA, like its foes in the gun-control lobby, also expects a ban on semiautomatic weapons to resurface.

“Case in point, the attorney general came out in support of the semiauto ban,” Arulanandam said. “Gun owners know that a threat to their freedom can happen at any moment.”

In addition to the NRA’s in-house team of about a dozen registered lobbyists including Chris Cox, the group retains well-connected bipartisan firms Ogilvy Government Relations and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Earlier this year, the NRA brought on the C2 Group’s Jeff Murray, known for his ties to the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. Murray was chief of staff to then-Rep. Bud Cramer (D-Ala.).

In the first quarter of this year, the NRA reported spending $435,000 on federal lobbying on a long list of issues ranging from the D.C. voting rights bill to the national parks matter.

But despite its busy agenda and the huge recent boost in its membership, that dollar figure is similar to NRA’s spending in recent years.

In the 2008 election cycle, the National Rifle Association’s political action committee fired off slightly more than $1 million to federal candidates, with 78 percent going to Republicans and 22 percent to Democrats.

The NRA’s PAC gave $663,000 to House GOPers and $225,000 to the chamber’s Democratic candidates, according to election data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The NRA’s overall 2008 giving and its portion to Democrats increased slightly over 2006, when the group donated just less than $900,000 with 16 percent to Democrats and 84 percent to Republicans.

Helmke said that so far, this year has been “a little bit of a last gasp” for the NRA’s clout. “I think they’re sensing that their period of calling the shots is declining,” he said.

But Arulanandam couldn’t disagree more.

“I think the only way I can respond to that and not be a smartass is to say, it’s been proven that it is bad politics to be on the wrong side of the Second Amendment,” he said.

“We have seen an increasing number of Democrats and Republicans campaign as pro-gun,” Arulanandam said. “We’ll continue to hold their feet to the fire. We believe if you campaign as pro-gun, you should vote pro-gun.”

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