The NRA Doesn’t Seem So Invincible Anymore

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you do a Google search of “NRA” and “political juggernaut,” you can keep yourself reading for days. Like other cliches, the National Rifle Association’s enormous power has been a topical staple of political journalism for decades.

The juggernaut’s far from dead (though some people predicted the NRA’s long-term decline a while back). But the gun movement took a bruising hit on Election Day. Reeling from defeat, the NRA then promptly clobbered itself, Wile-E.-Coyote-style, in the immediate aftermath of the vote.

Both events are novel.

The election results have been ably covered. The short version is that the NRA lost all over the place. Gun-safety groups even spent more than the NRA.

Voters in Washington state approved a ballot initiative imposing expansive new regulations on gun purchases and ownership. Nevada elected a Democrat who defeated an NRA-backed opponent, replacing an incumbent GOP governor who had stymied gun regulation.

More than two dozen House races around the country flipped from Republicans to pro-regulation Democrats. A Kentucky Democrat, John Yarmuth, was spotted in the Capitol wearing an “F” pin to advertise his NRA rating. “We unseated 15 A-rated NRA members with F-rated members,” he told a reporter. “So I’m going to have to get some more pins made.” Astonishingly, in Georgia, an NRA-backed Republican incumbent was defeated by a professional gun-safety advocate, Lucy McBath, whose teenage son had been fatally shot in 2012.

Even more telling were results in marquee races where Democrats lost or are locked in statewide contests too close to call. It’s been less than six years since a massacre of young children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, inspired Congress to do absolutely nothing. Who would’ve predicted then that Democrats running on gun safety would soon be competitive in Florida, Georgia and even Texas?

Part of the shift is due to the NRA’s coming out as an exclusively Republican organization. Politically, the NRA now lives by the GOP, dies by the GOP. It has absolutely no protection in states with Democratic majorities or, starting in January, in the House, where Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has already promised to introduce gun-regulation proposals.

The rest of the shift flows from a broader backlash against the nihilism that fuels both the NRA and Trumpism. Women have taken the lead in combating both. Shannon Watts, the force behind the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action, is one of the most successful political activists in the nation. Her group, which is supported by Bloomberg L.P. founder Mike Bloomberg, regularly checks the gun movement in even Republican state capitals.

Likewise, female candidates and activists powered the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives, especially in suburban districts. In exit polls, voters registered support for “stricter gun control measures” by 59 to 37. A CNN poll taken after the election found that registered voters preferred Democrats in Congress to Trump on gun policy by 54 to 37.

The election, of course, was bookended by a gun massacre in Pittsburgh and another in Thousand Oaks, California. You might call this bad luck for the NRA if the organization hadn’t worked so hard to make it possible.

The Thousand Oaks murder had two especially salient characteristics. First, the murderer targeted country-music fans. Country is part of the shrinking cultural space still available to the NRA. But after the mass murder at a country-music concert in Las Vegas last year, the deadliest in U.S. history, even country music is going wobbly on guns everywhere for everybody.

The second striking thing about the Thousand Oaks massacre was the presence of survivors of that Las Vegas shooting. One Las Vegas survivor died in Thousand Oaks. What are the odds?

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the death of 27-year-old Telemachus Orfanos is easy to remember and impossible to rationalize. Don’t expect his mother’s anguished demand for “gun control” to stop ringing anytime soon. It won’t.

A day after the election the NRA showed how easy it is to trip when the landscape turns rough. Responding to a growing body of gun-violence research by medical professionals, which has a nagging tendency to refute NRA propaganda, the group issued a tweet advising “self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Oh, my.

Emergency-room doctors around the country responded with a social-media avalanche, sharing pictures of their blood-soaked scrubs and other consequences of the U.S.’s uniquely lethal gun policies. “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly?” one doctor tweeted. “This isn’t just my lane, it’s my f*****g highway.”

Picking a fight with emergency-room physicians (you know, the people featured for years as heroes in popular television programs) was pretty stupid. The NRA can’t win a fight in an emergency room, where the consequences of its preferred policies are morbidly evident.

But friendly terrain is shrinking. The culture is changing. Consciousness is rising. More people are thinking about how to contain gun violence, especially young people.

The more they think, the more likely the “political juggernaut” is supplanted by another cliche: game change. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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