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With NRA's Internal Turmoil, Opponents See Opportunity To Advance Gun Restrictions

Advocates of stricter gun legislation hold a candlelight vigil for victims of recent mass shootings outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association on Monday in Fairfax, Va.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Advocates of stricter gun legislation hold a candlelight vigil for victims of recent mass shootings outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association on Monday in Fairfax, Va.

The National Rifle Association's sway in the nation's capital may be waning at a time when two mass shootings in Ohio and Texas are reigniting the debate about enacting new gun restrictions.

In the past few months, the gun rights group's president stepped aside; its top lobbyist resigned; and allegations of financial misconduct at the highest levels of the group have burst into the open.

Amid allegations of impropriety, the New York and Washington, D.C., attorneys general have launched investigations.

Last week, three NRA board members publicly stepped down, protesting that they couldn't get straight information about the group's financial affairs.

"They've lost some of their ability to respond because they are distracted, they are losing funding, and they are losing support," said Rob Pincus, a spokesperson for Save the Second, a pro-gun rights group — but one that wants accountability reforms inside the NRA.

"Whatever statements they make are also losing efficacy because of the damage that's been done to their reputation."

The 2018 midterms marked a milestone where the NRA's opponents were able to outspend it. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by Michael Bloomberg, led that charge.

"The NRA is completely dysfunctional right now. It's like looking at a five-alarm fire, but the amazing thing is that they lit the match," said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety. "And the question is can the NRA get its house in order to be a player in 2020."

They were joined in the gun control effort by the Giffords gun control organization, which was founded after former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in at a constituent meeting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.

"The NRA is a swamp of infighting, self-dealing, and pandering to a small core of extreme supporters," said Peter Ambler, executive director at Giffords. "The mess they created proves they don't speak for a majority of Americans who agree that commonsense gun laws aren't controversial and are necessary to protect our communities."

The National Rifle Association said on Monday that it wants to focus on the "root causes" of gun violence. The gun rights group also said it wanted to pursue "real solutions that protect us all from people who commit these horrific acts."

One of the biggest opponents of new gun control legislation is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who decides what gets a vote on the Senate floor. Mirroring the NRA's statements, McConnell said this week merely that he wanted to find potential solutions — without naming any.

"Senate Republicans are prepared to do our part," McConnell said, adding that he "encouraged [GOP committee chairs] to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans' constitutional rights."

There are a number of proposals the Senate could take up: The House passed background check legislation earlier this year; Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman and Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has proposed red flag laws in the past and indicated he has an agreement with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to push a bill addressing them. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has proposed bipartisan legislation that expanded background checks but failed in 2013 after the shootings at Sandy Hook.

Toomey's proposal faltered in the Senate after the NRA opposed it.

He told reporters on Tuesday that he's worried the effort would fail again if the vote happened immediately.

Instead, he argues that he needs to build up momentum again for the legislation before moving to a vote.

"If we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may set back this whole effort," Toomey said.

On Monday morning, President Trump tweeted his support for expanded background checks, in line with what Toomey has been advocating.

But in prepared remarks just hours later, the president made no mention of those measures — instead falling in line with familiar NRA rhetoric that blames societal issues, rather than access to firearms, for mass shootings.

"Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun," the president said.

It's a sign that despite the NRA's internal struggles, the gun rights community still holds serious influence with the president. Until the president shifts on the issue, it's unlikely large numbers of Republicans will get out in front of him or the gun lobby.

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.