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October 3, 2012 5:11 pm
The NRA, which describes itself as the oldest civil rights organisation in the US, is involved in “literally thousands of races across the country from Hawaii to Florida” this year, says Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist and chairman of its political action committee.
“I’d like to say that we’re really focused on 30 states but we’re really focused on the entire country, whether it’s a state legislative race, a governor’s race, a House race, a Senate race or the presidential,” Mr Cox told the Financial Times.
This year, the NRA has helped to unseat Republican establishment candidates for the Senate, such as Richard Lugar in Indiana and David Dewhurst in Texas, and instead installed candidates with perfect records on supporting gun rights.
Members of Congress, especially conservative “blue dog” Democrats in close House races, are wary of upsetting the NRA and damaging their voting “scorecard” on any issue even tangentially related to gun rights.
The NRA has $9m in its PAC, but Mr Cox said it would spend “much more than that” by November 6, suggesting total expenditure would be “north of $20m”.
With turnout a crucial factor in this year’s elections, the NRA is running a voter registration drive called “trigger the vote”, signing up gun owners through Facebook as well as over the telephone and at gun shows.
It estimates that between 20m and 30m of the 100m gun owners in the US are not registered to vote.
Although Congress remains its main target, the NRA sees Mr Obama as public enemy number one. It has set up a website called “Gun Ban Obama” featuring unflattering photos of the president and warning members that “our freedoms are at stake, the time to act is now”.
In fact, Mr Obama has almost entirely steered clear of the sensitive issue since he took office four years ago. Even after a spate of mass shootings, including the killing of 12 people in a cinema in Colorado in July, the president has hardly mentioned gun control.
Former president Bill Clinton credited the NRA for helping Republicans take over the House in 1994 after he passed an assault weapons ban, and Al Gore’s strong support for gun control was widely considered a contributor to his loss in 2000.
Despite Mr Obama’s almost total silence on gun control, Mr Cox says the president caused “significant damage” to the second amendment by installing “two anti-gun justices” on the supreme court, referring to Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“If there is another vacancy, and God forbid it’s one of the five who support the second amendment, and the president’s able to put in another anti-gun justice, it’ll set this cause of freedom that we care about back by 50 years, at least,” he said.
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Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has been pilloried on the campaign trail for trying to present himself as a hunter, claiming he had shot “small varmints”.
Mr Cox said Mr Romney’s comments did not matter. “Our members don’t necessarily care if you’re a hunter. They don’t necessarily care if you are a shooter. What they care about is where are you on these issues,” he said, adding that Mr Romney had unreservedly stated his support for the second amendment in an interview with the NRA’s magazine.
While the NRA has a huge grassroots network – it boasts 4m paid members and 39m Americans who say the NRA speaks for them during elections – observers say its influence has been exaggerated.
In a report after the Colorado shootings, the Center for American Progress, a leftwing think-tank, concluded that the NRA was not as powerful as it made itself out to be. It found that the NRA’s endorsement had no effect for incumbent Republicans nor any Democrat in elections between 2004 to 2010.
“This year is a good illustration of their influence but also their limitations,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and author of four books on gun policy.
“At a national level, no presidential candidate is talking about gun control, even through we’ve had a spate of shootings. This serves the interest of the NRA because they want to preserve the status quo,” he said.
Mr Cox has a warning for those who underestimate the NRA’s influence: “The political graveyard is filled with candidates who believed that line.”
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