Once Again, the NRA Is Winning the Gun-Control Debate

Fawn Johnson

The National Rifle Association and gun-control advocates held dueling news conferences Tuesday at the National Press Club, where both sides were in agreement on one thing: Right now, it doesn’t look like Congress will pass any sweeping gun-control legislation.

At a press conference titled “Reality Check on Congressional Gun-Control Legislation,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., tried to shame members of Congress into voting for something—anything—that would restrict guns and respond to horrific massacres such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns is spending $12 million on TV ads to target vulnerable politicians, featuring the parents of murdered children at Sandy Hook.

Cummings has personal experience with bloodshed of a loved one. His 20-year-old nephew was gunned down two years ago. “Now I’m looking at a body that has gone through the autopsy process,” he said. “I don’t know what it is that has to happen” to move the dial on reasonable gun legislation.

Purely by chance, Cummings’s reality check was scheduled one hour before the National Rifle Association unveiled its “National School Shield” recommendations. In contrast to its frenetic opposition to gun-control measures in the immediate wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, the NRA made a presentation Tuesday that came across as the proposal of a group confident that it had won this legislative battle.

The NRA trotted out its own Sandy Hook parent at the event. Mark Mattioli didn’t cry or even shake during his brief remarks. “As parents, we send our kids off to school. There are expectations. In Sandy Hook, those expectations weren’t met,” he said. “I think politics need to be set aside here. This is recommendations for real solutions, solutions that will make our kids safer.”

Rationality was the name of the game for this NRA presser, a stark contrast from the rambling press conference offered by the gun lobby’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, one week after Sandy Hook. At the time, LaPierre scolded schools for not having armed guards. “We as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless,” he preached.

That was then. The NRA school-safety task force has abandoned the idea of armed policemen in schools because superintendents were reluctant, said a calm Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas gubernatorial candidate and former House member, who heads the task force. The full report from the task force includes noncontroversial recommendations on mental-health safety screenings in schools and securing front doors and classroom doors—the same ideas circulated in a report offered by a group of civil-rights advocates last week.

When it comes to armed personnel, the NRA task force recommends using “school resource officers” who undergo 40 to 60 hours of training, but only if the school wants them. In fact, pretty much everything the task force is recommending is voluntary. If you don't like it, you don't have to do it. “The presence of armed security personnel in a school adds a layer of security,” Hutchinson said. “But one, the decision is locally made, and two, some schools may decide not to go in that direction.”

That was the most controversial part of Hutchinson’s presentation. Journalists hoping for something juicier tried to liven things up, but he was unwilling to answer questions about the NRA’s position on background checks or high-capacity ammunition clips. He was graceful about it, though. “Our whole effort is about school safety. We talk about things that will keep children safer in schools,” he said.

Anyone hoping for fireworks went away disappointed. There were no protesters. There were a few armed guards, but they had no reason to be there. The guys at the front door gave only cursory checks to laptop bags and purses. Everyone filed out quietly.

Cummings, for his part, is hoping Congress will pass a bill that would tighten up enforcement on “straw purchases” of guns—i.e., stopping a non-felon wife from buying a shotgun for her felon husband. A reasonable guy himself, Cummings is pushing a less controversial notion than banning assault weapons. Unfortunately for him, it is linked with the more controversial background-check bill in the Senate. And that may signal its downfall.

“I will fight for this legislation until the day I die,” Cummings said.

In reality, background checks are not going to happen unless more Republicans change their minds. That legislation will be on the Senate floor next week. Expect Democrats to offer amendments banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, which also face an uphill climb. If the background-check bill doesn’t get the requisite 60 votes, the entire legislative gun-control effort could end then and there.

In a spirit of generosity, Cummings also noted LaPierre’s previous statements supporting school safety. “If that is the case, then we ought to be able to get something done,” he said. If the politeness keeps up like this, perhaps they can.