In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the White House and the NRA are set for a bitter confrontation over gun control. Although the NRA wields considerable influence, gun control initiatives are gaining momentum.
A meeting between US Vice President Joe Biden and America's most powerful gun lobby group ended in recrimination on Thursday, with the National Rifle Association (NRA) accusing the Obama administration of seeking to impose restrictions on lawful firearms owners.
"We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment," the NRA said in a release, referring to the constitutional provision that guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.
The White House has called for a gun policy review in the aftermath of the December 14th massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 young children and six adults were shot dead. Earlier in the week, Biden said that President Obama may issue an executive order to tighten gun restrictions should Congress fail to act on its own.
Although Biden hinted that the Obama administration was considering universal background checks and limitations on high-capacity magazines, new regulations would have to survive a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the opposition of the NRA. Well-funded and with some 4 million members nationwide, the NRA is widely considered to be one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States.
"The NRA has a great aura and a great mystique," Kristin Goss, an expert on gun policy at Duke University, told DW. "I think there is a very open question whether some of this aura is exaggerated. There's no question that Congress fears the NRA."
'Perception is reality'
According to Goss, there is a widespread belief in Washington that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee to George W. Bush - and thereby the presidency - over the issue of gun control in the 2000 election.
"Memories of political losses loom large in the memories of (Congress) members," she said. "There is also the reality for many members that gun owners do show up (to vote)."
Operating under the assumption that gun control was politically toxic, elected officials largely avoided the issue for the ensuing decade, which left the policy initiative in the hands of the NRA and the Bush administration. And in 2004, the ban against semi-automatic assault weapons was allowed to expire.
"A chief reason why attitudes shifted away from stronger gun laws in the last decade is because the Democratic Party at the national level avoided the issue for the most part," Robert Spitzer, author of the "Politics of Gun Control," told DW. "Whereas the Bush administration was the most gun-friendly presidential administration in history - bar none - on the policy of gun control."
Pushing the values message
Originally founded in 1871 by civil war veterans as an apolitical organization that promoted shooting sports, the NRA became increasingly politicized in the second half of the 20th century, as Washington sought to implement gun control measures in aftermath of the 1968 assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.
Today, the NRA profiles itself as the premier defender of Americans' constitutional right to bear arms. According to Goss, the NRA's message resonates with certain cultural tendencies in the US, such as individualism and distrust of the state.
"The NRA has been very good at making that connection, which makes no sense to international audiences, that widespread gun ownership is fundamental to the prevention of tyranny and the protection of democracy," Goss said.
While the NRA is a grassroots organization made up of individuals who are passionate about gun rights, the group also has close ties with gun manufacturers, according to Spitzer.
"They have the common interest of gun ownership because for the NRA their base of support is gun owners, and the more they can do to push guns into society, the greater the potential base for them and for the gun manufacturing industry," Spitzer said.
National School Shield Program
In the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, there was a widespread expectation that the NRA would likely compromise on its position and accept certain restrictions on gun ownership. Instead, the organization doubled down on its position and proposed the National School Shield Program, which would put an armed guard in every school in America.
"The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, said during a December 21st press conference. "Would you rather have your 9-11 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or from a minute away?"
According to the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling Center, the proposal has low support among Americans, with just 41 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed. Meanwhile, the NRA's traditionally high favorability rating could be suffering in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.
While a December survey conducted by the pollster Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans have a positive view of the NRA, Public Policy Polling found that organization's favorability had dropped among Americans from 48 to 42 percent.
"The NRA is on the defensive," Spitzer said. "The initiative is with the pro-gun control side right now. Their biggest problem is whether they can sustain that momentum to have any prospect of change."