Wednesday, April 18, 2007

NRA: guns, money and influence

The National Rifle Association, America’s peak gun lobby, issued a brief statement yesterday in the wake of the Virginia Tech University shootings which claimed the lives of 33 people in Blacksburg, Virginia. The NRA said it “joins the entire country in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of Virginia Tech University and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. We will not have further comment until all the facts are known.” The statement was issued as members gather for their 2007 annual meetings being held in St. Louis, Missouri.

Another gun lobby group Gun Owners of America (GOA) were not so tight-lipped. They have blamed the shooting on the laws that prevent guns be taken into school grounds. GOA Executive Director, Larry Pratt said "The latest school shooting demands an immediate end to the gun-free zone law which leaves the nation's schools at the mercy of madmen. It is irresponsibly dangerous to tell citizens that they may not have guns at schools. The Virginia Tech shooting shows that killers have no concern about a gun ban when murder is in their hearts."

The 23 year old killer Cho Seung-hui is a South Korean national and legally resident alien who lived in Centreville, Va who last renewed his green card in 1993. Virginia gun laws are lax. They allow legal permanent resident aliens to purchase firearms but must provide additional identification to prove they are residents of the state. The law prevents students or visitors from carrying guns onto the grounds of public and private K-12 schools. But the Virginia code is silent on subject of guns and public colleges.

Most public schools and colleges in the state ban or restrict guns on campus. But the root of that authority is murky and some are seeking to get that law changed. David Briggman, a former police officer is fighting to challenge state colleges' authority to enact tougher gun restrictions than the state. He forced Blue Ridge Community College to allow him to carry a gun onto campus while a student. He also sued James Madison University over its ban on concealed weapons even among permit holders. "It's extremely easy to challenge university policy by looking at ... whether they are given the statutory authority to regulate firearms on campus, and of course, they're not, “he said.

Gun owners hold sacred the Second Amendment to the US constitution. The text of the amendment reads “"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Despite extensive discussion and much legislative action, there is no definitive resolution by the courts of just what right the Second Amendment protects. It is interpreted variously by 80 million gun owners as enshrining an individual right, and by advocates of gun control as referring to a right of the people to arm themselves only when needed for communal defence. Most Americans lean towards the first interpretation. An NRA poll found 89% of Americans believe they have a right to own a gun.

The NRA was founded in 1871 in New York State. The group formed over concerns about poor marksmanship skills of the Union Army in the Civil War. The primary goal of the association would be to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”. Its power began to grow after 1903 when NRA Secretary Albert S. Jones urged the establishment of rifle clubs at all major colleges, universities and military academies. Their magazine, The American Rifleman, kept members abreast of new firearms bills. It formed a Legislative Affairs Division in 1934 which mailed out legislative facts and analyses to members. In 1975, recognizing the critical need for more direct action, NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA).

NRA-ILA is the lobbyist arm of NRA. It is a powerful body. The NRA has 4.3 million members and a $180m annual budget. It is mostly associated with the Republican Party. It has disproportionate influence over several rural swing states, such as West Virginia and Tennessee, which were crucial to George W. Bush's narrow victory in 2000. Before that election, the NRA boasted that it was so close to Bush that it would "work out of [his] office". Addressing an NRA convention after the election, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre told members: "You are why Al Gore isn't in the White House".

Currently meeting in St Louis, LaPierre again addressed the annual convention. This time he urged delegates to prepare for "the storm that lies ahead". LaPierre was referring to the threat posed by an anti gun-lobby Democratic-controlled Congress as well as the likelihood they would also win the presidency next year. "Today there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure,” he said. He could not have imagined the storm was barely two days away.

Opinion polls are now consistently showing a majority of Americans support stricter controls. That is likely to rise further following the Virginia shooting. But many doubt if the Democrats will take meaningful action on gun control. John Conyers, chairman of the House judiciary committee, pledged before November's election that he would not "support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns". Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, favoured an election strategy which allowed candidates in rural states to adopt pro-gun positions leaving those in urban areas to push for restrictions. As a result many rural gun friendly Democrats were elected.

Democrat New Mexico Governor and possible presidential hopeful Bill Richardson is seen by GOA as the “most gun-friendly candidate from either party at this point”. But even they worry that Richardson will take the party line on guns and his “greater love for his party allies might prove to greatly disappoint those pro-gun voters who want to see him in the Oval Office”.

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