NRA’s support among gun advocates splintering over background checks

March 6, 2013

[…which may or may not be a result of my hammering away at them on almost a daily basis, but anyway, good news today. Set phasers to Infuriate the RKBA.]

Fringe, it’s not just a TV show

Today I am pleased to see that gun manufacturers, dealers, and gun rights groups are breaking with the NRA on background checks. Even better, Democrats are flipping the economic threat around on the gun industry, with big-city mayors and their budgets for guns and ammo looking for manufacturers that will work with them on legislation.

This is a promising turn of events. In some previous work I’ve documented gun manufacturers like Barrett Firearms Manufacturing punish law enforcement in California with a ban on sales in retaliation for California’s strict gun laws, and Magpul, which makes ammunition magazines and other gun ‘accessories,’ threaten to pull their manufacturing plant and hundreds of jobs out of Colorado if Democrats pass gun control legislation. And the NRA has orchestrated boycotts to punish anyone who steps out of line, so anyone breaking up the coalition now is asking for it.

And yet, they are, showing that NRA’s leadership is out of touch. Not only with vast majorities of Americans, Democrats, gun owners, and NRA members, but now, even gunmakers and gun rights advocates.


History shows why the individual manufacturers, gun enthusiasts or gun rights groups have reason to fear the NRA; that is, when the rest of the industry is lined up behind them. In 2000, they turned on Smith & Wesson for signing an agreement with the Clinton administration. Since I’m no gun expert, I looked them up and I guess it was their .44 Magnum Model 29 featured in the old Clint Eastwood movies. He couldn’t save them from the NRA, I suppose.

May have been busy, yelling at a chair

In March 2000 Smith & Wesson was the only major gun manufacturer to sign an agreement with the Clinton Administration.[5] The company agreed to numerous safety and design standards as well as limits on the sale and distribution of its products. Gun clubs and gun rights groups responded to this agreement by initiating large-scale boycotts of Smith & Wesson by refusing to buy their new products and flooding the firearms market with used S&W guns.[5][6][7] After a 40% sales slide,[8] the sales impact from the boycotts led Smith & Wesson to suspend manufacturing at two plants.[9] The success of the boycott led to a Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation’s being initiated under the Clinton administration,[7] targeting gun dealers and gun rights groups, which was subsequently dropped in 2003.[10] This agreement signed by Tomkins PLC ended with the sale of Smith & Wesson to the Saf-T-Hammer Corporation. The new company (Smith and Wesson Holding Corporation), which publicly renounced the agreement, was received positively by the firearms community.[11]

This agreement was intended to increase gun safety by mandating safety devices on their guns, such as gun locks. Also, among other things, it barred gun sales — including gun show sales — without a background check on the buyer. Interesting, eh? Following more links, I see that the Bush regime dropped the antitrust investigation and scrapped Clinton’s agreement, but for S&W the damage was done. Bush’s failure to investigate was summed up, perhaps with unintentional irony, by FTC spokeswoman Brenda Mack:

Thanks for nothing — as usual

“This does not mean that a violation did or did not occur, so the commission reserves its right to take action again in the future if necessary,” said Mack.

With that history in mind, it’s encouraging to witness these cracks in the monolith. Like a trade group for gun manufacturers breaking with the NRA over universal background checks.

“That’s more the NRA’s issue,” Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), said in an interview. “From the commercial side, we’re already there, and we’ve been there, and we were the ones that have been the strongest proponents of an effective, complete background check.”

The Washington Post reports that, behind the scenes, gunmakers, dealers, and gun advocates are expressing support for background checks. The NSSF president is a brave fellow for putting his support on the record. Hopefully the target on his back will be rhetorical only. But with the death threats gun control advocates and politicians are receiving, well…who knows.

And as gunmakers have tried their intimidation tactics on lawmakers, like Magpul in Colorado, it seems that some Democrats are putting their own economic leverage to use. Big-city mayors, after all, must spend quite a bit of money on firearms and ammunition for police departments.

“Our residents want to ensure that the tax dollars that are being used to purchase guns for our police departments are going to manufacturers that share our values and support our strategies,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who leads the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, wrote in a letter to Glock and the NSSF.

The NRA has been against universal background checks from the beginning. Their executive VP Wayne LaPierre is on record, repeatedly, claiming these background checks will lead to gun registration — pointedly silent about the existing federal law his organization worked to pass that forbids any such registry at the federal level. The NRA’s lies were debunked by Mark Kelly in an op-ed at Politico at the end of February, and I spent some time digging into the details. Instead of the truth, they offer this lie by omission, along with threats of confiscation and false comparisons to Nazi Germany. In spite of this consistent message, even here I see folks trying to soften the NRA’s image. They challenge this simple reality that the NRA is out of touch, increasingly isolated in their opposition to universal background checks.

Not all of the NRA’s traditional allies share this sense of alarm. For example, the founder of the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation tentatively backed a proposed compromise bill in Washington state last month that would expand checks while limiting state firearms record-keeping.In addition, the head of the nation’s largest police union, which was allied with the NRA in a major legislative battle in the past, has joined the movement for expanded background checks.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview that he now supports extending checks to gun shows and other venues where they are not required.

The Washington Post article notes the negotiations underway in the Senate as another break with the demands of the NRA’s leadership, in that NRA-supported Republican Senators have agreed in general on expanding background checks. True enough. But the remaining sticking point — record keeping — shows that these Republicans seek a watered-down, toothless universal check. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), for example, who wants no record-keeping, in other words, no accountability, no enforcement.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-not-so-OK)

While the NRA’s extremism has managed to drive away some allies, on the issue of background checks it still has the support of at least one key legislator. The Huffington Post reports that Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin have been trying to hammer out a bipartisan deal, but they’ve still made no progress with Republican Senator Tom Coburn. For weeks, Coburn, who has an “A” rating from the NRA, has insisted that the legislation must not require records of private gun sales to be kept, since supposedly that’s the first step toward a national gun registry. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to consider several gun control bills on Thursday, so if Coburn doesn’t come around by then, Schumer may file his old background check bill as a placeholder. Getting the bill passed without the Republican senator’s assistance wouldn’t be impossible, but it’s not a good sign for what was supposed to be one of the easier gun control measures to get through Congress.

Tom Coburn may well be an intractable roadblock, but the Senate Judiciary Committee could all use a push on this issue, as some votes are supposed to take place tomorrow. One of the Senators on the committee, Jeff Flake, is from my state. Although I don’t expect this Republican to vote my way on this issue, I’m still making a point to contact him. Nothing but endless ringing at Flake’s office number this morning, so the NRA’s mobilization effort may already be underway, but I mean to try again.

Here are all of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee considering the background check law, among other gun control proposals. If any of these are your Senators, perhaps it’s worth a moment of your time to call them? The United States Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 can connect to any Senate office upon request.

Patrick J. Leahy, Chairman, D-Vermont Dianne Feinstein, D-California Chuck Grassley, Ranking Member, R-Iowa
Chuck Schumer, D-New York Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah Dick Durbin, D-Illinois
Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota John Cornyn, R-Texas Al Franken, D-Minnesota
Michael S. Lee, R-Utah Christopher A. Coons, D-Delaware Ted Cruz, R-Texas
Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut Jeff Flake, R-Arizona Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii

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