Last Saturday, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, urged delegates at the group’s annual convention in St Louis, Missouri, to prepare for “the storm that lies ahead”.
He was referring to the threat posed to the gun lobby by a Democratic-controlled Congress and the risk that the White House could also fall into enemy hands next year.
Mr LaPierre cannot have imagined that the storm he predicted would arrive two days later in the most tragic circumstances.
Monday’s fatal shooting of 32 students on a Virginia college campus has thrust the issue of gun control back towards the top of the political agenda and put the country’s powerful gun lobby on the defensive.
Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans would support stricter controls – a Gallup poll last year found 56 per cent in favour – and the proportion is likely to increase following this week’s tragedy.
But, for many of the estimated 80m Americans in possession of a firearm, gun ownership remains a cherished constitutional right.
According to accounts of his speech at the NRA convention, Mr LaPierre implored gun-owners to resist those seeking to limit the “right to bear arms”. “Today, there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure,” he warned.
The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the US, with more than 4m members and a $180m annual budget. Its role in helping secure Republican control of the White House and Congress for much of the past decade has arguably been matched only by the Christian conservative movement.
Before the 2000 presidential election, the NRA boasted that it was so close to George W. Bush that it would “work out of [his] office”.
The group’s power is amplified by its disproportionate influence over several rural swing states, such as West Virginia and Tennessee, which were crucial to Mr Bush’s narrow victory in 2000. Addressing an NRA convention after that election, Mr LaPierre told members: “You are why Al Gore isn’t in the White House”.
NRA support for the Republicans has been rewarded with a series of measures strengthening the rights of gun-owners and gun manufacturers.
Among the first concessions was a White House order for the FBI to destroy records of background checks on gun-owners within 24 hours, amid NRA fears that the information could be used to create a national gun registry.
The Bush administration has also sought to weaken some UN initiatives against global gun smuggling, while Congress passed a law protecting gun manufacturers from liability for gun-related violence and allowed a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles to expire.
Arguably the biggest victory for the gun lobby has been the administration’s endorsement of the widest possible interpretation of the second amendment of the US constitution, on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”.
For decades, federal courts ruled that the amendment allowed for restrictions on gun ownership through its reference to the necessity for states to keep “a well-regulated militia”.
But John Ashcroft, Mr Bush’s first attorney-general, backed the NRA’s view that the right to gun ownership rests with the individual. This broader interpretation was accepted by a federal appeals court for the first time in March, when Washington DC’s 30-year ban on keeping handguns in the home was declared unconstitutional.
Like most conservative interest groups, however, the gun lobby found itself out of step with the national mood when the Democrats took control of Congress last November. A number of prominent NRA-backed Republican senators were defeated, including George Allen of Virginia, Conrad Burns of Montana and James Talent of Missouri.
But it is far from certain that the Democrats will seriously challenge the gun lobby even after this week’s tragedy. Scarred by the role that gun politics played in the defeats of Al Gore and John Kerry in the past two presidential elections, analysts say many Democrats would be reluctant to support draconian laws that risk alienating gun-owners.
John Conyers, chairman of the House judiciary committee, pledged before November’s election that he would not “support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns”.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has argued that gun control policy should be set at state level, allowing candidates in rural states to adopt pro-gun positions while those in urban areas push for restrictions. Mr Dean’s strategy was rewarded by the election of numerous gun-friendly Democrats in November, further weakening the party’s traditonal support for gun control.
Despite Mr LaPierre’s warnings about the Democrats, the NRA has been quietly working to build bridges with the party. The group backed 58 gun-friendly Democrats in November and the percentage of its political donations going to Democrats has more than doubled from 6 per cent in 2002 to about 13 per cent last year.
With the Democratic threat tamed, the most pressing concern for many gun rights activists is the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, the three leading candidates, have all supported varying degrees of gun control, making the NRA nervous that its gains during the Bush years could be squandered by a Republican successor.