WASHINGTON ― Two days after July Fourth, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders stood in the lobby of the Republican National Committee to assure the public that the House was going to act on guns.
The measure in question was meant to institute a three-day waiting period before someone on a terrorist watch list could buy a firearm, with the possibility that a court could block the sale entirely. There were already rumblings that it was facing trouble from conservatives ― as well as from Democrats who wanted a more aggressive bill.
But Ryan said he was confident the House would move the legislation before leaving for a seven-week summer break, “because we think this issue needs to be addressed.”
Of course, the issue wasn’t addressed. The House never proceeded to the bill, and Congress did what it does best: nothing.
Congress’ persistent and predictable failure to do anything real on guns is an old story. As many have noted by now, if lawmakers were unwilling to do anything about guns after 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at the end of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, there aren’t many things that could conceivably move the needle ― not when the gun lobby appears so influential in the Capitol.
But what’s so surprising about the death of this most recent Republican bill is this: The National Rifle Association supported it.
And the demise of the legislation might indicate that there’s a new, even more gun-crazed sheriff in Congress: the National Association for Gun Rights.
A New Sheriff In Town
NAGR is the much leaner, more pugnacious version of the NRA. Where the NRA has looked to find some common ground with gun reform advocates and at least appear to be reasonable, NAGR has been the unapologetic champion of opening up gun laws even more. And it’s found an effective way to take a relatively small budget and kill measures like the Republican counterterrorism package.
“We not only killed it, but we peed on the fence post when it was dead,” the group’s president, Dudley Brown, recently told The Huffington Post.
Brown argued that the NRA’s reputation of being the tough guy in Congress was undeserved. “They’re kind of wussies on the issues,” Brown said of the NRA.
The NAGR president emphasized that his group doesn’t support gun control, no matter which party proposes it. And he compared the NRA’s strategy of appeasement to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Adolf Hitler.
They’re kind of wussies on the issues. NAGR President Dudley Brown, referring to the NRA
The NRA, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, supported the gun language in a package Republicans wanted to pass, in part, to take away the political cudgel the Democrats were wielding against them.
According to an email obtained by HuffPost, the NRA sent around guidance to Capitol Hill offices on the Cornyn amendment, a measure proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that was similar to the House bill. The NRA said that “due to the importance of this issue,” it would be considering the legislation in future candidate ratings and endorsements ― meaning Republicans would be punished for voting against the three-day waiting period.
After the Orlando nightclub shooting, Democrats renewed their push for a gun bill, taking over the House floor for 26 hours in a sit-in for a vote on the so-called “No Fly, No Buy” legislation, which would bar people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun.
With Democrats hitting Republicans over their refusal to address guns, GOP leaders and the NRA seemed to recognize that the issue had become politically dangerous, and an attempt by Republican Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) to split the difference with a vote on language seemed like an effort to dampen the narrative that the GOP is unwilling ― or unable ― to act.
Congress knows the legislation Republicans wanted to pass isn’t actually going anywhere. The Senate voted down the measure 53-47, with every Democrat and three Republicans voting against it. (It needed 60 votes to be adopted.)
But the vote may have been less about substantive reform and more about messaging. Whenever Democrats hit Republicans over allowing people on terrorist watch lists to buy a gun, Republicans could say they voted for a bill that would have prevented those people from obtaining a weapon while considering some of the due process concerns that members on both sides have noted. (Terrorist watch lists are famously expansive, and denying someone a constitutional right to a gun based on the nebulous standards of the watch list worried a lot of members.)
Regardless of the merits of the bill or the argument that gun advocates should support the legislation as a fig leaf for Congress’ inability to do anything real on firearms, NAGR’s lobbying effort was an impressive example of coordination.
Bringing The Heat
With the Cornyn amendment in the Senate and the counterterrorism package in the House, NAGR sent 850,000 “petitions” ― essentially form letters ― to Congress. The group helped connect more than 6,000 phone calls to Capitol Hill. It sent out roughly a dozen updates and pleas for contributions to an email list of more than 4 million people and savaged Republicans ― particularly the speaker ― on social media.
Within an hour of Ryan’s announcement that Republicans intended to vote on the gun bill, NAGR had a post up about the House speaker and was pressuring individual members to come out against the legislation.
The post about Ryan ended up with more than 20,000 shares and 5 million impressions, according to NAGR.
Meanwhile, as NAGR was trying to mobilize its members on the outside, the group was working inside Congress to identify members most susceptible to its lobbying efforts ― and those who would help NAGR kill the bill immediately.
Rep. Thomas Massie was one of them. The Kentucky Republican told HuffPost that most people assume the gun bill died organically. “The reality is,” he said, “there was a very organized effort to kill the Cornyn language here in the House of Representatives.”
Massie said it started on June 30, before he even had the text of the measure. Breitbart wrote an article about an upcoming vote, and Massie linked to the piece with a bit of his own commentary. “Hashtag smh,” Massie said, accurately recalling the start of his Facebook post.
Meanwhile, Massie’s close congressional friend, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) bashed the bill on Twitter, tweeting about “#HR5611” 25 times in five days, linking to the “Minority Report” trailer twice and the hashtag “dystopia” once.
At the same time, NAGR was tying up congressional office printers and fax machines by “throttling” targeted members. (Essentially, the group faxes over petition after petition, and cranks up the “throttle” at key times.) At its peak, NAGR sent over nearly 100,000 petitions in one day.
“Member offices will call us and threaten to sue us because they’re hearing from too many constituents,” Brown said.
Brown said his group spent about $500,000 on this fight, but it was worth it to send a message to lawmakers that even the most watered-down gun bill will bring consequences.
“When you get that kind of stuff that comes,” Brown said of the Republican gun bill, “you spend everything, and you look for more.” NAGR brings in between $7 and $8 million a year, and spends every dime it gets.
“When they feel the heat, they see the light ― and they definitely felt the heat,” he added.
Of course, there is a less nefarious version of how this bill died. A GOP leadership aide told HuffPost it was a combination of factors. Some members didn’t want to take a gun vote; another group didn’t want to “reward” Democrats for their sit-in; yet another group of Republicans wanted different legislation that would address guns more substantively. Unable to count on Democrats for votes, Republicans could only afford about 30 defections on their side.
The package already had vote issues without the gun language. Some members of the 40-person House Freedom Caucus, for instance, had taken issue with provisions on Islamic radicalization that were included in the counterterrorism bill.
And then the Dallas shooting came on July 7, and that made the gun conversation even more delicate ― particularly if Republicans were going to put a bill on the floor that could fail. The possible headlines alone were enough to give leadership pause.
Republicans and Congressional Black Caucus members are also now talking about some legislation on community policing grants, which may be the safest, least controversial way Congress can respond to these shootings, even if it isn’t much.
But whichever narrative you choose to believe ― a bill dying because a rambunctious gun group pressured the right members, or because the votes were never there ― Congress, once again, did nothing.