How Gun Control Groups Are Catching Up to the N.R.A.

WASHINGTON — The political momentum in the gun control debate has shifted in the year leading up to this weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, with gun control advocates taking a more empowered stance and the National Rifle Association consumed by internal power struggles.

The major gun control organizations, propelled by funding from supporters like Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and grass-roots networks across the country, have helped enact new laws — mostly in Democratic-controlled states — and, for the first time in 25 years, passed a significant gun control bill in the House.

But the gun lobby’s structural advantages, built over decades and defended by President Trump and congressional Republicans, remain in place: an N.R.A. budget that dwarfs what even Mr. Bloomberg has spent, a Republican Senate majority disinclined to consider gun-control legislation, and a base of primary voters for whom the N.R.A.’s endorsement is a critical seal of approval.

The net effect is a playing field on gun issues that is far more level than it has been since N.R.A.-backed Republicans took over Congress in 1994, sparking one of the country’s most bitter, partisan culture wars.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of the weekend massacres, there were few signs the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings would lead to calls for additional gun restrictions any different from those already being pushed by Democrats.

Though the United States experiences hundreds of mass shootings each year, few have captured enough public attention to force even incremental change. And even in cases when gun control legislation is drafted, the N.R.A. and its allies in elected office have almost always defeated it.

On Sunday, activists and Democrats, including the leading candidates for president, reiterated chronic pleas for the Republican-controlled Senate to take action on the gun control bill that House Democrats passed in February, a measure that would require background checks for all gun buyers.

“The Senate should come back from recess and immediately vote on laws that we know work and save lives,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the grass-roots gun control organization funded largely by Mr. Bloomberg. “If Congress continues to sit on its hands, then we will work even harder to make sure that we have a gun-sense majority in Congress and a president who will do the right thing.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, called the attacks this weekend “horrifying” in a Twitter post, but said nothing about legislation.

“Sickening to learn this morning of another mass murder in Dayton, Ohio overnight,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Two horrifying acts of violence in less than 24 hours. We stand with law enforcement as they continue working to keep Americans safe and bring justice.”

But Senate Democrats may not get off easy by just blaming Mr. McConnell. The spate of mass shootings in recent years has led an array of activist groups to adopt positions that were once relegated to the far fringes of the gun debate; these groups now aim to hold accountable Democrats who they believe do not fight hard enough for gun control measures.

[A weekend of gun violence stuns the country]

“They must do everything in their power, everything in their capacity as a senator, from holding a filibuster, to placing a hold on nominees and key bills, to getting back to D.C. right now to show the nation that they are willing to act,” said Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down America. “It’s not enough to simply ask Mitch McConnell to bring something to a vote. They have to use their leverage as a United States senator to shame him into taking action.”

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has pushed for gun control legislation since the 2012 elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., said Sunday that he’d spent the weekend discussing gun control proposals with his Republican colleagues.

If Republicans won’t budge, then Democrats will “have to get together and figure out what leverage we have in the Senate,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview. But realistically, he said, gun control may only pass the Senate if Democrats control the chamber.

“It’s my responsibility to try to find a legislative path, but I’m not going to take too many kicks at the football if it keeps getting pulled out from under us,” Mr. Murphy said. “I think we have had our eyes firmly on the electoral path since the spring of 2013, and we probably have to keep it there.”

Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat who leads the House’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said members were working on additional legislation — including restrictions on high-capacity magazines — despite the challenges of passing the measures in the Senate.

“Sadly, we know that the issue of gun violence prevention is a partisan issue,” Mr. Thompson said. “We saw that firsthand with the House Republicans holding up any hearings on gun violence prevention, any votes on gun violence prevention, for six and a half years after Sandy Hook. Once the Democrats took over the House, that changed.”

There was no sign over the weekend that Republicans’ opposition to new gun laws had softened. In appearances on Fox News, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas blamed violent video games — to which the N.R.A. has long sought to shift blame — for the proliferation of mass shootings.

We’ve always had guns and evil,” Mr. Patrick said in the Fox interview. “I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”

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Violent video games are common in many other countries, which do not experience mass shootings at anywhere near the level the United States does. But no other country has as many guns: Americans own an estimated 393 million guns, according to a 2018 study, more than the nation’s population.

In a major shift from past presidential campaigns, the 2020 Democratic candidates are unanimous in their support of universal background checks and other restrictions. Many have gone further, calling for reinstatement of the expired 1994 assault weapons ban — part of a crime bill written by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — as well as offering more robust proposals. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has called for a federal gun licensing program.

“Enough is enough is enough, and it’s been enough for the past five years,” Mr. Biden said at a campaign event in Las Vegas late Saturday.

Both sides have claimed victories at the state level. In 2019, 17 states, all but three of them with Democratic legislatures, and Washington, D.C., enacted 35 laws that restricted gun ownership. At the same time, Republicans in Florida enacted legislation allowing teachers to carry guns in their classrooms, Idaho lowered its age for carrying a weapon without a permit to 18, and several states now allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Further complicating the gun-control debate is that the N.R.A. has been in turmoil, mired in financial scandal, investigations, infighting and revelations that it was targeted by Russia.

In April, a power struggle with Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s longtime chief executive, led to the departure of Oliver North, the group’s former president, leading Mr. Trump to implore the group to “stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS – FAST!” But the turmoil continued, and Christopher W. Cox, the N.R.A.’s top lobbyist and second-in-command — and a friend of Donald Trump Jr. — was forced out in June.

The N.R.A. has turned over thousands of pages of records in congressional investigations of its ties to Russia. It is also facing investigations by the attorneys general of New York and Washington, D.C. And it is mired in a bitter legal fight with Ackerman McQueen, an advertising firm that was for decades its most influential contractor.

But the N.R.A. remains formidable, with an overall budget that dwarfs that of any gun control group, and it is unlikely to moderate its positions.

After 30 hours of silence following initial reports of the El Paso massacre, the N.R.A. released a statement offering “our deepest sympathies” to victims in El Paso and Dayton.

“We will not participate in the politicizing of these tragedies,” said N.R.A. spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “As always, we will work in good faith to pursue real solutions that protect us all from people who commit these horrific acts.”

Perhaps a more telling statement came Saturday morning, before the Texas shooting, when Willes Lee, the group’s second vice president, tweeted: “Where do you feel least safe, most vulnerable? Exactly. A gun free zone. Tell elected officials & business owners they are responsible for innocent people losing lives.”

Still, gun control advocates believe the N.R.A. is in its weakest position since 1994. With Mr. Trump in the White House, the organization can no longer say that a hostile administration is threatening to take away Americans’ guns.

Some prominent Republicans, including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, do support extreme-risk protection orders, commonly known as red-flag laws. This in itself is a significant shift, and in an interview earlier this year, Mr. Rubio said he had been influenced by how routine mass shootings had become.

“I remember being at a confirmation service for my nephew, and somehow the thought crept into my head: What if somebody walked in here now and started shooting?” he said. “I never used to think about those things. So absolutely, it has an impact on people, and people want action.”

After the shooting in El Paso, Mr. Graham tweeted that it was “time to do more than pray,” but did not elaborate.

For Democrats in Washington, the political winds on gun control have shifted dramatically since Sandy Hook.

Of the 235 Democrats in the House now, just three received “A” ratings from the N.R.A. last year: Representatives Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas. Mr. Cuellar has a Democratic challenger for 2020 who has sought to make his position on gun control an issue in the primary. By contrast, in 2008, voters elected 67 Democrats with A ratings.

Among Democrats, there was little appetite after the El Paso and Dayton massacres for the typical offering of thoughts and prayers for the victims.

“No more thoughts and prayers,” Senator Kamala Harris of California wrote on Sunday in a fund-raising solicitation for three gun control groups. “We need action.”

Reid J. Epstein reported from Washington, Maggie Astor from New York and Danny Hakim from Orlando, Fla. Katie Glueck contributed reporting from Las Vegas.

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