6 reasons why President Obama will defeat the NRA and win universal background checks

Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012, the gun-control debate is in full swing. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are pushing for more regulation, including restoring the assault-weapons ban, limiting high-capacity magazines, and implementing mandatory background checks for all gun sales. Gun-rights advocates oppose the initiatives, citing Second Amendment freedoms. The battle lines have been clearly drawn – and Americans have seen this face-off before. But this time around, things are different.

Something is going to happen this session in the US Congress that hasn’t happened in more than a decade: The National Rifle Association (NRA) is going to lose on a top priority issue – specifically universal background checks. Further measures on guns are unlikely to make it through Congress, given that the Republicans control the House, but public and political opinion is swaying in favor of background checks. An Obama victory on this issue before the 2014 mid-term elections won’t be easy, and he’ll have to use a lot of political capital to get there.

But here are six reasons why President Obama will defeat the NRA on universal background checks.

1.NRA has alienated key Democrats

President Obama meets with representatives from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs Association in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 28, to discuss policies he has put forward to reduce gun violence. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The NRA could almost change its name to the National Republican Association. On the NRA’s board sit at least 14 Republican politicians or nationally known extreme conservatives, like anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and guitarist Ted Nugent, whose misogynistic insults toward Hillary Rodhan Clinton have become infamous. The sole remaining Democrat, Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma, is no longer in Congress. In the past, the NRA board featured such powerful Democrats as Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. As I pointed out two years ago in this publication, the number of Democrats who enjoy NRA support has been dropping dramatically.

Smart lobbies that want to win long-term victories, such as the pro-Israel lobby, try very hard to avoid becoming one-party shops. The NRA, thanks to pushing from partisan Republicans on its board, took stands that forced Democrats like Mr. Dingell to choose between their party and the NRA. The NRA also refused to help a lifelong hunter and gun-rights supporter, Majority Leader Harry Reid, when he was in the fight of his life in the 2010 elections. Reid is not known around Washington for his forgive-and-forget ways.

NRA isn’t as scary anymore

The narrative of 1994’s Republican takeover of both houses of Congress was accompanied by the loud victory crowing of the NRA. Similarly, in 2000, when Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, few questioned the NRA’s assertion that gun politics had a lot to do with it. But lately? If there are any scalps on the wall of the NRA lately, they are at the state level or lower. In the 2012 Indiana Republican primary, the NRA supported Richard Mourdock in his race against Sen. Richard Lugar, but analysts aren’t crediting the NRA for Mr. Lugar’s defeat. And Mr. Mourdock then went on to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the November general election.

What about the tons of money the NRA deploys for lobbying? An independent group, Open Secrets, ranked them 176th in lobbying expenditures among Washington players in 2012. And another analysis by the Sunlight Foundation showed that only .83 percent of all the money the NRA spent on federal campaigns went to winning candidates

NRA can’t deliver swing voters like it once did

Imagine you are a Democratic member of Congress from a swing district. Can the NRA really promise to deliver you pro-gun votes if you desert your president on background checks this summer? American politics is so polarized right now that there just aren’t as many conflicted voters like the famous union members with guns. Today, gun opinion, like that of abortion, has become polarized. And even then, public opinion isn't matching up with NRA positions as closely as it used to.

NRA won’t be the only big spender anymore

In the past, the NRA dramatically outspent gun control groups, sometimes by as much as 20-1. Lately, though, that has begun to change. New York's mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has put his money where his gun-control mouth is, and supported candidates who favor reasonable gun limits. His political action committee, Independence USA, spent more than $8 million to support gun-control candidates last election (closing in on the $17 million the NRA spent). Bloomberg-backed candidates won three of the six races where his superPAC was involved.

Perhaps more important, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was horrifically injured in a mass shooting two years ago, has pledged to raise $20 million for the elections of 2014 – to match what the NRA spent last November.

The money game on guns may be even for the first time in modern history.

Democrats will remember Joe Baca

Mayor Bloomberg dropped $3.3 million dollars into a primary race between Democrats in California. Joe Baca, an incumbent US congressman, had supported gun rights for 20-plus years. His opponent was for gun control, and rode Mr. Bloomberg’s lavish spending to victory. The NRA sat out the race, attributed to the fact Mr. Baca had voted against the gun group on one partisan vote and supported Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. The message to moderate Democrats could not have been clearer: Vote against gun control, and you might lose your seat.

That’s a new message in gun politics. We’ve seen how primary challenges in the GOP have radically increased partisan loyalty on that side of the aisle. If gun-control advocates like Bloomberg and Gabrielle Giffords really want to change gun politics, they will throw their weight around in Democratic primaries in 2014, and let wavering Democrats know their intentions – now. Bloomberg’s move against Rep. Baca in California last election already sent a pretty strong message.

Newtown is different

Some events are different. They puncture through the equilibrium of American politics and alter the political order. The Newtown massacre, unlike the bloodshed at Virginia Tech, Aurora, or Arizona, is still resonating with the public. We still read stories of what exactly the bullets sprayed from an assault rifle did to 20 young children.

And unlike those past mass-shooting tragedies, the full force of the American presidency will be harnessed to keep the memory of the Newtown children alive. With the help of the Obama White House, the families of the fallen will be with us for months, and the NRA will have a tough time opposing their impassioned grief.

The real battle: 2015

All of this points towards an Obama victory on background checks before the 2014 elections. Other items on the White House-led gun-control agenda aren't likely to be passed in a Republican-controlled House this term. But Obama is smart enough to know this. What he may hope to do is to win on background checks this session, and then ask the American people to put a new Congress in place in the 2014 mid-term elections. If the Democrats control both houses in 2015, they could pass a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

Given that presidents usually get shellacked in the midterm of their second term, as happened with Reagan, Bush, Eisenhower, Nixon, and even FDR, this is a tall order for Obama and his party. But if the voters respond to the new dynamic in gun control, then the real battle on guns will begin in 2015.

Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.