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On the day of the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history, the 76-member governing board of the National Rifle Association assembled in St. Louis for its 136th annual meeting. The April 16 meeting followed three days of events in the America’s Center convention hall, which drew more than 50,000 people and hundreds of exhibitors — from Extreme Shock Munitions to the Glock Collectors Association and Bushmaster Firearms International (“The Best, by a Long Shot”). There was a special session on “Methods of Concealed Carry” and another on “Shooting for Life Skills and Fun.” If there was any significance in the coincident annual meeting of the country’s most powerful gun lobby (four million members strong) and the shooting deaths of 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty by a highly armed sociopath, the NRA wasn’t going to acknowledge it. The group went immediately into bunker mode. Its leadership decided to refuse press calls, opting instead for a three-sentence statement on the NRA’s Web site expressing its condolences and noting that there will be no further comment “until all the facts are known.” But those facts will likely make little difference in the ultimate legislative response to Cho Seung-Hui’s shooting spree. Despite Democratic control of Congress and the horror of more than two dozen university students shot down in their youthful prime, gun-control advocates hold out little hope that any federal laws will change. Chalk that up to two factors: the NRA, whose members make up one of the most zealous lobbying groups in the country and whose Washington team is small but has decades of experience, and a Democratic Congress whose 15-seat majority includes 44 conservative lawmakers who dub themselves Blue Dogs, many of whose constituents are rabidly opposed to gun control in any form. WELL-ARMED AND WELL-HEELED The NRA’s longtime top lobbyist, Jim Baker, is still walking the halls of Congress after more than a quarter-century representing gun owners. A graduate of Catholic University’s law school, Baker became the group’s top lobbyist in 1991 after Wayne LaPierre Jr. became the NRA’s executive director, a position he still holds. Baker left the NRA in 2002 (he was also on his own from 1994 to 1998) to join the Federalist Group, now known as Ogilvy Government Relations. Chris Cox, Baker’s telegenic prot�g� and successor as executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, once worked for Tennessee Democrat John Tanner, a leading Blue Dog and 20-year House veteran. Cox’s leading lobbyist inside the NRA’s lobby shop is Chuck Cunningham, who has also spent years working for the group. At Ogilvy, Baker can call on help from the firm’s two founders: Stewart Hall, a former legislative director for Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and John Green, a former top aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Baker’s longtime right-hand man — his “tail gunner,” as one lobbyist who knows them both called him — is Patrick O’Malley, who also worked at the NRA throughout the 1990s but is now on his own. Last year the NRA spent a total of $1.6 million on lobbying. Of that amount, $380,000 went to Ogilvy and $160,000 to Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, where lobbyist Todd Weiss worked on the account. The group spent almost $2 million in 2005, with similar amounts going to Ogilvy and Sonnenschein, which was hired to work, successfully, for the passage of the Protection in Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The act eliminated, with a few exceptions, any liability for gun manufacturers when their weapons are used in a crime. There’s also a formidable campaign-contribution operation. In the 2006 election cycle, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA’s total contributions totaled $948,875, of which 85 percent went to Republican candidates. But the group made sure that it supported several Blue Dogs, with some of its largest contributions going to Georgia’s Rep. Jim Marshall ($9,266), Florida’s Rep. Allen Boyd Jr. ($7,450), and Tennessee’s Tanner ($5,950). Baker led the NRA, as executive director of ILA, through the group’s most difficult period, the first two years of the Clinton administration. Not only did Congress pass the Brady Act in 1993, which initially required purchasers to wait up to five days for a background check before purchasing a handgun, it also banned assault weapons in 1994. That law “sunsetted” in 2004 and has yet to be renewed. “It’s not that he didn’t do a good job,” notes Patrick Raffaniello of the Federal Policy Group, who worked as an NRA lobbyist in 1991. “The times were against us.” Not anymore. Today the pro-gun-control dynamics of the early 1990s have almost completely reversed. Now, it is conventional wisdom among many leading Democrats that there is no upside at all to proposing even the most modest gun-control legislation — and that it was the two key gun-control votes in the early 1990s, not health care, that cost them their 50-year House majority rule in 1994. “What the gun votes did, it cost us seats in those districts that swing either way, in rural Southern seats in Indiana,” notes one Democratic political strategist. “People who are going to vote for us because of a pro-gun-control stance are going to vote for us anyway.” (After the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999, there was a push to close a loophole that allows private dealers at gun shows to sell guns without an ID check. But it was defeated.) In addition to the Blue Dogs, there is an overlapping group of 61 Democrats elected from congressional districts that President George W. Bush won in 2004. “The Blue Dogs, and in particular the newly elected Democrats from red districts, are the soft underbelly of the Democratic Party,” notes Rutgers University professor Ross Baker. “The entire caucus is being held hostage by the political vulnerability of a faction. Why embarrass the Blue Dogs by proposing legislation that isn’t going anywhere?” he adds. That assessment may seem harsh — there are surely liberal Democrats whose constituents expect them to support gun-control measures, especially now — but gun control, say Baker and others who have watched the issue over the years, is far more black-and-white than other problems Congress usually tackles. “In some ways gun control is more divisive and more polarizing than abortion,” says Baker, who grew up hunting as a young boy with his father in rural Pennsylvania. “With abortion, at least you can argue that people should emphasize contraception; it’s something people on both sides can agree on. With guns, there really isn’t anything that gun-control advocates can propose that isn’t going to be universally opposed by the other side.” When a man rammed his truck into Luby’s Cafeteria in 1991 in Killeen, Texas, and opened fire, killing 23 people and then himself, one longtime law-enforcement lobbyist recalls thinking about the pro-gun lobby, “They’re going to have a hard fucking time explaining this.” The answer he heard: “It’s a good goddamn thing he had a gun. Otherwise, how would he have stopped himself?” FIREFIGHT IN THE CULTURE WARS One reason gun votes are so difficult to change is that for millions of Americans, it is not a matter of public policy, it is a matter of culture. Gun advocates, of course, are quick to argue that America would be a safer place with more, not fewer, guns because when a rampaging murderer starts firing, somebody can fire back. Gun-control advocates say that argument ignores the collateral damage of a shootout, and that more guns mean more accidental shootings and more gun-related suicides. “It’s not about guns. It’s a cultural vote,” notes Democratic lobbyist James Free of the Smith-Free Group, who grew up in rural Tennessee. “It’s about 9- or 10-year-old boys who go out squirrel hunting with their father. It’s the most bonding experience they will have with their dads. In Tanner’s area, in Lincoln Davis’ district, it’s a big deal,” adds Free, referring to Tanner’s rural district in western Tennessee and Democratic Rep. Davis’ district in the center of the state. The chief of staff to one Southern Democratic member, who did not wish to be named, says that after the Virginia Tech slayings, the office expected to be inundated with calls for gun control. “We got one or two e-mails,” says the chief of staff. “It was very interesting. But we’re still getting lots of mail from Iraq.” Pro-gun-ownership advocates, like the NRA and many conservative talk-show hosts, were quick to claim the high road last week, criticizing as shamefully opportunistic anyone who would push for gun measures after the Virginia Tech tragedy. But the small but vocal community of gun-control advocates say that premise is bogus. “The largest mass shooting in American history took place,” says spokesman Peter Hamm of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Were we pissed off about that? Do we want to say something about that? You bet your bottom dollar. We’re not going to apologize to the denial brigade.” Still, if the gun-control debate is restarted, the Brady Campaign and the two other major gun-control advocacy groups, the Violence Policy Center and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, know those NRA members could be unleashed at the drop of an e-mail. Unlike the concerns of other wide-scale membership groups — such as those representing home builders, real-estate agents, or small businesses — guns are a visceral issue. “It’s Jeffersonian democracy,” says Raffaniello, “people who care deeply about their issue and are willing to be active in the community and politics. And LaPierre and Baker and Cunningham have figured out how to harness that effectively.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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