On March 12, teenage cousins riding ATVs through the streets of North Philadelphia died when a man opened fire with an AK-47. So far this year, 174 Philadelphians have been killed by a firearm. There have been 808 shootings altogether.
The steady beat of African-American and Latino street-corner homicides in cities like Philadelphia is not infrequently punctuated by mass killings in typically whiter and more suburban locales — most recently, the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin that left six dead, and the Aurora, Colo., screening of The Dark Knight Rises where a man opened fire, killing 12 and wounding 58.
Philadelphia has the equivalent of one Aurora every two weeks.Yet there has been no serious move to strengthen background checks to ensure that people with mental-health problems cannot purchase a firearm, to bar mail-order ammunition sales, or to prohibit high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.
American elected officials are paralyzed by the same fear of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that has long stalked politics in Pennsylvania, where legislators consistently block measures aimed at stopping “straw purchasers” by limiting handgun purchases to one per month and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons. Philadelphia’s own gun-control efforts have been hamstrung by NRA-powered resistance from Harrisburg, meaning the lobby is effectively writing the law on firearms in the city and state. It seems our state legislators are afraid of the NRA. But should they be?
“They’re probably just about the most successful group that we have in Pennsylvania historically that can organize and defeat people,” says Alan Krug, NRA state lobbyist in the ’80s and ’90s. The lobby is credited for decades of political victories, from former Philly mayor and Sen. Joseph S. Clark’s 1968 re-election loss to Rick Santorum’s 1994 surprise defeat of Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford.
There are reportedly about 400,000 NRA members in Pennsylvania, and the state last year issued 933,208 hunting licenses. But NRA power may be as much about perception as actual strength.
“It’s wrong to say that Pennsylvania is opposed to gun control. I’m Exhibit A,” says former Gov. Ed Rendell, who defeated NRA-backed candidate (and current U.S. senator) Bob Casey Jr. in the 2002 Democratic primary and pro-gun Republican Mike Fisher in the general election; he defeated NRA-endorsed Republican Lynn Swann in his 2006 re-election campaign.
Pennsylvanians are almost evenly divided on whether it is more important “to protect the right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership,” according to an April 2011 Quinnipiac poll. But gun control wins on many concrete policies: A 2007 poll found 96 percent of Pennsylvanians in key swing districts support requiring owners to report lost or stolen firearms, while 70 percent support restricting handgun purchases to one a month.
Gun laws, however, continue to weaken.
In 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett signed the so-called Stand Your Ground Law, which dictated that gun owners did not have a duty to retreat from a violent threat outside their home. Florida’s version of the law initially protected George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who fatally shot unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. Rendell, who unsuccessfully pushed for numerous gun-control measures, had vetoed a similar proposal in 2010.
The NRA is now pushing legislation allowing groups (like the NRA) to sue over city gun laws requiring people to report lost or stolen guns, and forcing cities to pay out penalties to groups (like the NRA) challenging the law.
In April 2008, the NRA called on then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham to arrest Mayor Michael Nutter for “official oppression” after the city quixotically (and perhaps in violation of state law) passed its own gun laws. “I’ll advise every resident of Philadelphia,” NRA lawyer C. Scott Shields said at the time, “to go out and buy their guns now.”
In 1998, NRA members gathered for their annual convention at the Philadelphia Marriott and elected actor Charlton Heston their president. Hundreds marched in protest, some holding the photos of gun-violence victims from Philadelphia.
Yet federal gun control had momentum during the 1990s: In 1994, after Gov. Bob Casey Sr. failed to pass a state-level prohibition on assault weapons, President Bill Clinton signed a federal ban. He also signed the Brady Bill, requiring background checks for some gun purchases. An NRA endorsement was perceived to be a liability by many of the “soccer moms” who fueled the Million Mom March in 2000.
But since 2000, Washington Democrats — blaming their historic 1994 loss of the U.S. House and later, Al Gore’s presidential defeat on gun control — have largely joined Pennsylvania in abandoning the debate. The federal assault-weapons ban expired with a whimper in 2004, and in June 2008, the Supreme Court for the first time ever determined that the Second Amendment established an individual right to bear arms. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, President Barack Obama offered only tepid criticism of assault weapons.
The NRA has nevertheless made defeating Obama a top priority. NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said that Obama’s lack of support for gun control was really just a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.”
The majority support for gun control has narrowed, and support for an assault-weapons ban has dropped to below 50 percent since 2000.
“I think most of this is less about the NRA’s power and more about the vacuum on the other side,” says Donna Cooper, state secretary of policy and planning under Rendell and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Yet, most Americans, including NRA members, still support measures opposed by the NRA. A July survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed strong majorities of NRA members supporting criminal background checks for gun-buyers and the reporting of lost or stolen guns.
And Pennsylvania gun politics — beginning with Clark’s much-mythologized 1968 defeat — appear more complicated upon closer inspection. Wofford’s 1994 loss to Santorum, part of a larger Republican wave, came after a contentious first Clinton term: the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the failure of “Hillarycare,” the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gun control played just one part.
Similarly, the 2010 wave of conservative victories can’t easily be tied to pro-gun advocacy, despite claims to the contrary by the Western Pennsylvania-based Firearm Owners Against Crime (FOAC). Former Rep. David Levdansky (D-Allegheny), who’s running to reclaim the seat he lost two years ago, tells CP his defeat had to do with big ad spending by the wealthy Republican State Leadership Committee — not any FOAC or NRA advocacy.
Nationally, it was the same story in 2010, as Obamacare and the deficit (not guns) drove the debate. That year, the NRA spent $1.5 million to support Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey against Democrat Joe Sestak in a race for the U.S. Senate, according to Think Progress. Toomey won a slim victory, but the NRA — in its largest independent expenditure ever — contributed just 3 percent of the money spent in the race.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the NRA spent $51.6 million on salaries and benefits in 2010 and less than $10 million on federal races. The super PACs and wealthy donors now flooding the presidential race with contributions make NRA expenditures seem all the less significant.