The National Rifle Association is not known for fighting battles it cannot win. But its opposition to the Sotomayor nomination was destined to be an exercise in futility. Many observers are puzzled as to how the NRA could make such an obviously misguided strategic decision. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called it "dumb". Actually, the gun lobby's behavior in the Sotomayor matter reveals much about what makes the organization tick and even more about the politics of gun control.
The NRA's denunciation of Sotomayor was expressed in the strongest possible terms. Charging the nominee with having "a hostile view of the Second Amendment and the fundamental right of self-defense," the NRA's Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox found her unqualified to "serve on any court, much less the highest court in the land." They added, darkly, that the vote on the nomination "will be considered in NRA's future candidate evaluations."
Many of the NRA's Congressional stalwarts have reacted with defiance. The day after the LaPierre/Cox letter was issued, four members of the House Hispanic Caucus, who described themselves as having "consistently high ratings from the NRA," wrote to the two NRA executives asking them to reconsider their opposition to Sotomayor. Their extraordinary letter said they were "mystified" by the NRA's characterization of Judge Sotomayor as "hostile to the rights of gun owners." The letter suggested that the NRA may be judging her "by a different standard" than it applied to nominees Roberts and Alito, who gave similarly noncommittal answers on the Second Amendment, but did not incur the NRA's wrath.
We have since witnessed a steady parade of NRA "A-rated" Senators announcing that they would vote for the nominee over the gun lobby's objection. Senators Baucus and Tester of Montana, Nelson of Nebraska, Webb and Warner of Virginia, Graham of South Carolina, Alexander of Tennessee, Martinez of Florida, Specter of Pennsylvania, and Johnson of South Dakota, among others. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Hill newspaper that he was "very disappointed" in the gun lobby, and added, "The NRA at some point has gone beyond its mission, and are perhaps allowing themselves to get hijacked by those who are in the extreme."
Senator Warner had it almost right. It's not that the NRA has been "hijacked" by extremists on the single issue of the Sotomayor nomination. The plain truth is that the NRA's policy positions long have reflected the extremist ideology of its leadership, and a core group of "Second Amendment absolutists" in its membership to which its leadership must be responsive. Once the NRA's policies are understood as driven primarily by ideological extremism, its behavior during the Sotomayor nomination becomes far easier to understand. The only way Judge Sotomayor could have satisfied the NRA's Second Amendment ideologues was to repeat the constitutional catechism that is their Holy Writ. But that would have been either to defy well-established precedent or to prejudge issues likely to come before the High Court. Even Robert Levy of the CATO Institute, the "Godfather" of last year's landmark Heller Supreme Court decision expanding Second Amendment rights, found her rulings on the Second Amendment "well within the bounds of responsible judging."
Obviously, the Senators who have decided to sacrifice their NRA "A-ratings" to vote for confirmation do not regard their vote as an act of political suicide. Rather, they have made a calculation that implicitly recognizes a fact of great significance: most gun owners (and, indeed, most NRA members), are not "Second Amendment absolutists." For example, over 80 percent of gun owners support closing the "gun show loophole" by extending Brady Act background checks to private sales at gun shows. Most self-identified members of the NRA support handgun registration and mandatory safety training before purchasing a gun. The NRA's policy views are driven by ideologues who do not represent its membership.
In short, the story of the NRA and the Sotomayor nomination is a "teachable moment" for those in Congress traditionally allied with the NRA. The lesson is this: to reject the extremist positions of the NRA is not to turn your backs on gun owners.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.