Obama's Army Outmaneuvered by NRA

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Although the first votes on gun -control legislation have yet to be cast, by some measures the National Rifle Association has already won.

Obama’s ambitious plans to ban assault weapons and limit magazine capacities are off the table, while the NRA suggested it could support the most likely outcome -- expanded background checks -- as recently as 1999. The NRA claims that the president’s efforts have triggered a fundraising surge and boosted its membership from 4 million to nearly 5 million. Members of Congress who seemed open to legislation after the shooting deaths of 20 Connecticut schoolchildren are still on the fence, while Republicans are threatening a filibuster.

Perhaps a battle pitting one of the oldest and most aggressive lobbying organizations against President Obama’s fledgling advocacy shop wasn’t a fair fight.

Yet by other measures, the newly created Organizing for Action is persevering in the first major battle over gun control in two decades. By partnering with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-financed group, Organizing for Action is building the strongest gun-control coalition ever seen in this country. The group also has public opinion on its side, with one Quinnipiac University survey finding 91 percent of voters support background checks.

“It’s a fascinating battle in which both sides have different goals,” said former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who boasts of several NRA endorsements during his political career. “The NRA is clearly succeeding in cranking up their base and expanding it. Their game is as much about keeping themselves in business as it is about public policy.”

As for Obama, “He is winning the hearts and minds of the American people and hopefully moving real legislation,” Dean said. “The president comes out as a winner either way because if the Republicans kill it, he can use it as an issue in 2014 to help Democrats win the House.”

While every battle on Capitol Hill ends with winners and losers, the matchup between the NRA and OFA may produce a more nuanced scorecard.

For its part, the NRA isn’t ready to gloat. “We have our work cut out for us,” said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, who added that the group expects to be outspent “exponentially” by Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and OFA.

“Our strength has never been in money. Our strongest asset is our members and supporters,” said Arulanandam, who added that the group has mobilized its members with “millions” of mailings and phone calls. “We’re working very hard to get our message out.”

If the NRA’s biggest asset is its membership list, OFA can claim the power of the presidency. Obama’s speech Tuesday in Hartford with parents of the Newtown victims was his 13th since the shootings, according to the White House.

OFA has helped organize more than 200 rallies and smaller gatherings in recent months and points to a slew of local news clips as a measure of its success. It has blitzed social media, arranged petitions and run online ads targeting about a dozen Democratic and Republican senators, and collected thousands of stories from supporters about gun violence. 

“Ninety percent of Americans believe that universal background checks are common sense, and those voices are getting heard in congressional districts across the country,” said Katie Hogan, an OFA spokeswoman. “Special-interest forces have been drowning out those voices for years, and OFA is giving a new platform to make sure that does not happen again.”

Organizing for Action was launched after the president’s second inauguration in January and is seeking to turn his unprecedented grassroots campaign into an advocacy group for his agenda. A previous incarnation of the group after the 2008 election revealed the challenges of galvanizing Obama supporters around issues outside of the high stakes of a national campaign.

“I think the jury is still out on OFA in general, not just on guns, because they are trying to do something that’s new,” said Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf. For now, OFA is helping to create sorely needed momentum for gun control.  “When I worked on this issue in Congress in the '90s, all the energy was on the NRA side, and there was little or limited energy on the pro-gun-safety side,” Elmendorf said. “For the long haul, the group that cares about gun violence is becoming more vocal. It may take them more time to get organized but they are not going away.”

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre didn’t help his cause when he held a hard-edged press conference one week after the Newtown shootings, calling for armed guards in every school. “Wayne did not find his voice very effectively,’’ said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. Still, the NRA has done its job by mobilizing its members against the gun control proposals.

“They are the model that every other group in America emulates,” Feldman said. "Everyone wants to be as strong as the NRA.”