Progressives Must Take a Stand: No More Appeasement of the NRA

It's now clear that the Democratic leadership in Congress has turned the reins of power over to the National Rifle Association. Is it time to make it official and elect the NRA's Wayne LaPierre Speaker of the House?

In a stunning act of craven appeasement to the gun lobby, the House Democratic leadership has unveiled a new version of the DISCLOSE Act, originally designed to blunt the worst effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling allowing unlimited independent spending by corporations in political campaigns. In a move that all concede is intended to neutralize the NRA's opposition to the bill, the legislation now effectively creates a special exemption for the organization from disclosure requirements that apply to gun control groups and other advocacy organizations that engage in campaign-related activities, as well as to corporations and labor unions.

Of course, the bill doesn't mention the NRA by name. That's not the way special interest legislation works. Rather, it creates an exemption for groups with more than one million members, that have been around for more than 10 years, and raise 15% or less of their funds from corporations. Even on the face of it, this is perverse. The DISCLOSE Act purports to create transparency as a way to attack the influence of special interest money in politics, yet it ensures secrecy for groups in a position to dump the most money into political campaigns. Since the NRA seems to be the only group that could qualify for the exemption, the DISCLOSE Act becomes a bill to fight the influence of special interest money that creates a privileged status for one of the largest special interest organizations in America.

Last year, Wayne LaPierre spoke these chilling words to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee: "The guys with the guns make the rules." The Democratic leadership in the House has surrendered to that reality. But what does it mean for progressives? What does it mean to have a Congress where legislation moves forward only if the NRA gets something out of it?

The DISCLOSE Act fiasco is just the latest instance of legislative hostage-taking by the gun lobby. The Congress enacted credit card reform, but only at the cost of an NRA amendment to legalize loaded guns in national parks. The Senate approved a voting representative for the District of Columbia, but only at the cost of an NRA amendment to gut DC's gun laws. Now the House Democratic leadership says we can enact campaign finance reform, but only at the cost of exempting an organization that funnels millions into the campaigns of candidates -- mostly Republicans -- who will vote consistently against a progressive agenda. It is beyond incredible that the Democratic leadership is giving special privileges to an organization that opposed President Obama's nomination of Justice Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and seems poised to work against the nomination of Elena Kagan. The NRA's leadership -- not, by the way, its membership -- is one of the most reactionary forces in American politics. If you dance with the devil, you will get burned.

It is time for progressives to stand up and denounce the shameful policy of appeasement toward the gun lobby adopted by the Obama administration and House Democratic leaders. The irony here is that any objective analysis of the NRA's vaunted political power would conclude that it is no more or less powerful than many other special interests that Democratic leaders say they are quite willing to vote against when the national interest demands it. And was anyone in the Democratic Party listening when Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who has long represented a rural district in Michigan, recently recounted that after he voted to close the gun show loophole, the NRA did everything it could to defeat him, and he was reelected easily?

It is gratifying to see the growing list of progressive groups that have joined the opposition to this cynical Democratic House sell-out. The Brady Campaign is proud to join such groups as the Alliance for Justice, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, US PIRG and many others in denouncing the NRA exemption. The entire progressive community should join them in insisting that those in the Democratic Party who seek the support of progressives must earn it by standing up to the bullies at the NRA.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).