WASHINGTON — After an uneasy decade-long truce with the NRA, Democrats and liberals across the country once again have their sights set on the nation's largest gun rights organization, using the defiant lobbying group as a kind of funnel to channel public outrage over public shootings toward Republicans.
"The NRA, they're profiting off of people's fear and extremism," Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski matter-of-factly told viewers Thursday morning, in one example.
In letters to the editor and internet chat boards, conspiracies about the NRA's shadowy control over the Republican Party abounds.
A rank-and-file lawmaker says he doesn't support a ban on assault weapons? The NRA must be pulling the strings. A red-state Democrat demonstrates reluctance to join the push for gun control? It must be because he's in the NRA's pocket.
Republicans have begun to cry foul at this aggressive new Democratic push.
"Instead of engaging your political opponents in a civil discussion and using evidence and reason, demonization seems to have been substituted for that," complained Republican Sen. John Cornyn. "And I think it's part of the lack of civility in our discourse."
The NRA's power in Washington is, without a doubt, extraordinary. The organization has deep pockets, millions of members, and a single-minded devotion to their positions that make them difficult to go up against even in the calmest of times.
But as with the demonization of the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party during the 2010 midterms, however, the reality is more complicated. Conservatives in Congress say that the reason so many of them vote against gun control measures is simply because they disagree with them, not because they're being strong-armed by villainous NRA lobbyists.
"They're not a bogeyman," said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of the NRA. "They're simply trying to help us walk through a very difficult process ... and the reexamination of how we make our kids safe. The NRA and every other organization should be part of that process."
The NRA is used to to doing battle with the left, and for much of the '80s and '90s, its prominent role in the gun control debate propelled it into the broader culture war, particularly during the Clinton administration.
"They've been doing that for a long time. There's nothing new to that," said Republican Sen. James Inhofe. "They have done this for so many years, they try to demonize anyone who is at all conservative."
But for much of the last decade, Democrats and the NRA have had a détente of sorts, in large part thanks to the rise of Blue Dog Democrats in the House and the general sense in Washington that gun control was essentially a dead issue, and that relitigating it would hurt the party's chances in red states.
That all changed after the Sandy Hook shooting.
The NRA has now replaced Tea Party in fundraising pitches, filling the role of the powerful, extremist enemy that must be defeated. And even red-state Democrats like Claire McCaskill — who once might have shied away from their party's anti-gun rhetoric — are sensing the political sea change and highlighting their fights with the NRA.
In recent weeks, the organization has been accused of hijacking the GOP and even running a "protection racket" extorting support for their positions with the threat of having its massive membership turn against politicians.
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell has taken a particular interest in the NRA, not only calling Executive Director Wayne LaPierre "blood drenched" but even attacking actor Tom Seleck over his support for the organization.
Democrats contend that their distrust for the NRA is warranted, and that the organization has long exerted undue influence on lawmakers to push its absolutist agenda — and, indeed, LaPierre has not done the NRA many favors with his erratic and combative public relations strategy since the Newtown shooting.
In one example that drew national outrage last month and seemed almost calculated to antagonize liberals, the NRA ran an ad using President Barack Obama's daughters to question his opposition to armed guards in schools. Similarly, LaPierre's first public remarks after the shooting made little effort to strike a compromising tone.
Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer captured his party's argument against the NRA after that press conference when he said, "I do not believe those remarks represent anywhere near a significant portion of America. I don't believe frankly that they represent necessarily the majority of views of responsible members of the National Rifle Association."
NRA President David Keene argued Thursday morning at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that liberals' demonization of the organization is shortsighted and politically dangerous, since it could serve to alienate millions of Americans for whom guns are an everyday part of life.
"That's what Bill Clinton was warning Barack Obama about a few weeks ago, saying, you don't live in that world, so be careful, because these people care about their culture, they care about their rights, they care about what they do, and they care about different things they do," Keene said.
Keene also downplayed the NRA's political activity in general: "That's about 12% of resources. The rest of our money goes to what we've been spending most of resources on since 1871, which is competition, gun safety, [and] technical information."
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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