WASHINGTON — Time after time, Democrats have tried to pass reforms to restrict access to firearms. Time after time, the National Rifle Association has led successful campaigns to block every bill.
Now the NRA has imploded, and Democrats see an opening after a wave of mass shootings to start the year. Senate Republicans, though, see that as wishful thinking — in interviews this week, senators repeatedly said they don’t need an active NRA to tell them where they stand on guns. The NRA’s decades of work are already baked in.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is suing to dissolve the NRA, alleging senior leadership siphoned tens of millions of dollars to fund their lavish lifestyles. In response, the NRA is attempting to declare bankruptcy and reincorporate in Texas. The association’s spending is restricted and requires court approval.
Democrats were already planning to try to extend background checks for firearm sales this year. The NRA being off the board is causing even more optimism that they can reach some bipartisan deal that can get through Congress.
“Their power is what stopped background checks from passing in 2013. It can’t not matter that they are significantly less able to run an effective political operation,” Sen. Chris Murphy told BuzzFeed News this week.
Last year set a record with almost 20,000 people in America dying from gun violence; an additional 24,000 people killed themselves using a gun. And 2021 has already seen a wave of mass shootings. Eight people were killed and five more wounded at a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis Thursday, at least the seventh mass shooting in the past month.
Democrats seem to be working toward a plan similar to the one that came a few votes shy of passing in 2013, though the details are fluid. That bill would have expanded background check requirements to guns sold online and at gun shows, while exempting most private sales between friends and family.
Things have changed since that bill failed. The NRA was broadly popular at the time and even several Democrats sought its political endorsement. Four Democratic senators opposed the background checks bill. By 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, the NRA’s polling was underwater — more people had an unfavorable view of the association than a favorable one — and Democrats were running midterm ads boasting about their F ratings on NRA report cards.
“I think the gun lobby has lost its viselike grip on Congress,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal this week. “Now whether the political dynamic changes radically this session or if it takes another session to do it remains to be seen.”
The NRA successfully killed the 2013 bill by arguing background checks were ineffective in stopping crime and an infringement on Second Amendment rights. Those views are by now dogma in most of the Republican Party. Most Republicans in Congress frame any gun control measures — even modest and broadly popular changes such as expanding existing background check laws to gun show sales — as undermining the Second Amendment.
Despite the wave of recent mass shootings, Senate Republicans are showing no signs of budging from their opposition to new gun control laws. It’s not clear that there needs to be an NRA to deliver its message anymore. Republicans who talked to BuzzFeed News this week laughed off the idea that the collapse of the NRA will have any impact on a bill’s chances.
“I think really people who run for office have made their decision on where they are on the Second Amendment, regardless of the different lobbying groups,” said Sen. Rand Paul.
Sen. Ted Cruz said there’s no doubt the NRA’s financial troubles — which he described as political persecution by a Democratic attorney general — will limit its ability to champion its message. But he said that won’t matter because Republicans are already united.
“I fully expect that Republicans will continue to defend the Second Amendment and I fully expect that virtually every Democrat will work tirelessly to undermine the Second Amendment,” said Cruz.
With the Senate split 50–50, Democrats would need to win over 10 Republicans on any gun control measure to override a filibuster. Expanding background checks enjoys broad bipartisan support outside of Congress and polls show even a majority of Republicans are in favor. But this has been true for years, and no bill has come close to passing since 2013.
One thing that does seem certain is that gun control, in one form or another, will get a Senate vote this year. This week Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer listed gun safety as a “key priority” that he intends to bring to the Senate floor, though he did not give a timeline. While the NRA is sidelined, Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group backed by Michael Bloomberg, is shelling out for a seven-figure ad campaign to promote reforms.
Murphy, one of the Democratic point people in gun control talks, is not providing much information about his conversations with Republican lawmakers. His language has been guarded, saying this week it “isn’t out of the realm of possibility” that they can get enough votes to overcome a filibuster.
While leaving the Senate on Wednesday, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst told BuzzFeed News that gun control is an issue where politicians already know where they stand and where their supporters stand. Asked if she would be open to the push to expand background checks, Ernst said she had not yet talked to Murphy, but would be happy to hear him out. Seconds later, she ran into him as he also headed to his office. “Good timing!” she said, beginning a conversation as they walked out of earshot.