Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must be wondering what else he needed to do to make his pandering to the gun lobby pay off politically. In a recent statement, the National Rifle Association has made it official. Despite Reid's recent record of carrying the NRA's water on Capitol Hill, the gun lobby will not endorse the Majority Leader for reelection against his Tea Party Republican challenger, Sharron Angle.
When it comes to advancing the NRA's agenda from the Democratic side of the aisle, Harry Reid recently has had few peers. Time and again, Reid has supported Republican-sponsored amendments to weaken the nation's gun laws - from the Coburn Amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks, to the Thune Amendment to undercut existing state law restrictions on concealed carry, to the Ensign Amendment to gut the District of Columbia's gun laws. Reid has used every means at his disposal to block Senate consideration of bills sponsored by Democratic Senators to close the lethal loopholes in our gun laws - even legislation to bar gun purchases by persons on the terrorist watch list or to extend Brady background checks to private purchases at gun shows.
As distasteful as Reid's record has been, it apparently was not good enough for the NRA. According to Chris Cox, Director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, Reid could not be forgiven his support of Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both strongly opposed by the gun lobby for failing to commit themselves to its absolutist vision of Second Amendment rights. The NRA is not satisfied with the power to dictate our nation's gun policy. It also insists on the power to determine the composition of the Supreme Court.
Senator Reid just learned (the hard way) a few lessons about pandering to the gun lobby.
First, no matter how much you appease the NRA, it will always want more.
Second, because the NRA serves an extremist political ideology, you cannot successfully appease it without becoming extremist yourself.
Third, as a Democrat, you are always vulnerable to being "outgunned" by an even more extreme pro-gun Republican. Harry Reid, meet Sharron Angle.
Although Chris Cox's statement about the NRA's refusal to endorse Reid mentions only his support of President Obama's two Supreme Court nominees, it may well be that Reid's recent attack ad against Angle's Second Amendment nuttiness also played a role. Angle has become infamous for her interpretation of the Second Amendment, which she has said is intended to ensure that the people have the means to engage in armed revolt "when our government becomes tyrannical," suggesting that the time to employ such "Second Amendment remedies" may arrive if politicians like Harry Reid are not voted out of office. "[T]he nation is arming," says Angle, because the people "are afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways."
Reid has responded with a powerful attack ad in which a police officer (and self-described Republican and NRA member) calls Angle's rhetoric "way over the line" and "crazy" because "what she's actually talking about is armed resistance." Indeed, she is.
The irony here is that there is little daylight between Angle's insurrectionist views and those of the NRA itself. Some years ago, an NRA official told the New York Times, "The Second Amendment is literally a loaded gun held to the heads of government." Just last year, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre put it this way to the Conservative Political Action Conference, "Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind till it's guarded by the blue steel and dry powder of a free and armed people . . . Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules." Was Angle saying anything different? It may be that the NRA simply could not endorse Senator Reid once he had attacked its core belief that the Second Amendment really is about armed revolt against our government.
Senator Reid's political advisors may still believe his record of weakening our gun laws will help him with gun owners, regardless of his being snubbed by the NRA. But it is a myth that politicians sacrifice the support of gun owners by supporting sensible gun laws. There is evidence that Reid himself once understood this. As recently as 2004, for example, he voted to close the "gun show loophole" by extending Brady Law background checks to private sales at gun shows.
A revealing survey taken last year by Republican messaging maven Frank Luntz shows that most gun owners - even most NRA members - support many of the gun control measures Reid has successfully blocked in recent years. For example, Luntz found that 69% of self-described NRA members, and 86% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA, support closing the "gun show loophole."
So, Senator Reid, what did you gain by pandering to the NRA? Only your pivotal place in the recent failure of our political leadership to address the continuing tragedy of 300 Americans killed and injured by gunshots every passing day.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)