It’s a fragile and naive hope, but there are signs the NRA, the most single-mindedly powerful lobbying group in the US, might be on the run from an opposition led by angry teenagers.
Here’s why. The most riveting scene of the past 10 days was not the tears, grief and rage outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in south Florida. That parade of despair, alas, is numbingly routine.
Instead, it was the spectacle, a few nights later at a nationally televised CNN town hall, of a US senator revealing just how enslaved he was to the NRA’s cash and clout. In that moment, the gun control debate shifted irrevocably.
Asked by a Parkland student if he would now refuse to accept any NRA donations, Florida Senator Marco Rubio – who has received more than $1 million in support from the organisation – dodged the question.
Facing hundreds of parents and students distraught about the slaughter at their school, Senator Rubio (you remember him; he was the GOP’s shiny young saviour until Donald Trump chased him off the Republican primary playground in 2016) instead banged on about groups “buying into my agenda”.
To howls of “answer the question!” from the highly emotional audience, Senator Rubio began to repeat himself, a robotic tic that sunk him in the presidential debates two years ago. It was a humiliating, shameful performance.
Cameron Kasky, who survived the school shooting: “Sen. Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”
Rubio: “People buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment” #StudentsStandUp https://t.co/ucmVB74g1C
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) February 22, 2018
It was also a revelation. To see a US senator, literally face to face with the agony and anger of his own constituents, incapable of turning away the NRA’s cash made one thing clear: The time for changing people’s minds is over. It’s time for changing elected officials.
In a way, it’s a relief. With each shooting – Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook – the same irrefutable facts are trotted out: the absence of mass shooting in other western countries, the generally lower crime rates in gun control cities, the success of legislation like raising the drinking age in lowering traffic fatalities, etc.
On the other side, the constitutional literalists, who insist the founding fathers enshrined unfettered gun rights in the Second Amendment just as they did the freedom of speech in the First Amendment. In the hours after each massacre, their partisans and proxies take to the airwaves to talk over one another on cable news channels.
In each of these aftermaths, the gun control advocates grimly hope for the best, thinking that this time, yes, this time, perhaps things will change. Really? Why should it? To believe there are millions of Americans — including elected officials — who really needed a few dozen more dead neighbours to FINALLY change their mind has been a delusion for years, an enervating spectacle made grimmer by its predictability.
That delusion seemed to vanish with Senator Rubio’s public meltdown. And it’s about time. According to Newsweek, the NRA and its subsidiaries spent more than $US51 million in the election cycle in 2016, a staggering amount that dwarfs every other nonprofit organisation in the US. Seventeen of the 100 members of the Senate have received more than $1 million each during the course of their careers dating back to 1989.
The vast majority of the NRA’s spending is not in direct donations, however; much of it is spent on political ads attacking candidates who have the temerity to propose sensible gun control and mobilising their highly motivated five million members. It’s that combination of money and membership that leaves legislators paralysed.
At the same time, gun control advocates have relied solely on their grief and moral certainty in hopes of swaying elected officials. It hasn’t worked. Little wonder, when you learn that the NRA has pumped $US13 million directly to the most powerful members of Congress, compared to a paltry $US570,000 from gun control advocates.
During the past year, however, the left has moved from dreamy to determined. The frequency of mass shootings has quickened. The congressional midterm elections this November have been framed as a way to wrest back control, with Democrats targeting races around the country. Mr Trump remains a highly attractive target for those voters.
Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has forced real changes in the policing of sexual harassment in the workplace. Both movements, supporters say, demonstrate that grassroots action really can make a difference. So in a country where more than 85 per cent of the population favour gun control measures, isn’t it time to apply the same electoral tactics – and cash – to the game the other side has been playing for so long?
It’s starting to happen. For example, the gun control nonprofit run by former House representative Gabby Giffords, who was shot and wounded by a gunman in 2007, reported a surge of 43,000 donations for a total of $US1.2 million in the days after Parkland, Forbes reported. There are often such surges after a tragedy, but the sense of determination with elections only months away might sustain the increase.
The money so far raised is a drop in the bucket compared to the NRA’s war chest. But a bucket filling, however slowly, with cash is better than one filling, again, with tears.
Parkland will almost surely not be the last of these uniquely American tragedies, but its aftermath – and its remarkable student survivors –seem to have assured that the NRA will have a target on its back come November and beyond.
Larry Hackett is the former editor in chief of People magazine in the US and a current contributor to the morning television news program Good Morning America. Based in New York, he writes regularly for The New Daily on American life and politics.