NRA's Sandy Hook press conference: What can it say?

On Friday, the National Rifle Association will hold a rare news conference – a sign that the Sandy Hook massacre has put the gun-rights organization in a tough position.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Illinois gun owners and supporters file out NRA applications while participating in an Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day convention before marching to the Illinois State Capitol earlier this year in Springfield, Ill.

After nearly a week of laying low since the Dec. 14 elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association holds a press conference Friday – a rare event for the largest and wealthiest of American gun-rights organizations.

No one expects the NRA to give ground on any gun-control measures under discussion, such as a new federal ban on certain assault weapons or on high-capacity ammunition magazines. But in billing the 10:45 a.m. Eastern time news conference as “major” and saying that the organization is “prepared to offer meaningful contributions” to help prevent another Newtown, the NRA has raised the stakes for its role in the public debate.

“They have upped the ante by doing it the way they have,” says Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and a former NRA official. “They’ve built the news conference into a pretty big deal.”

Unlike with mass shootings of the recent past – Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Colo.; the Sikh temple in Wisconsin – most of the 26 people killed in last Friday’s rampage were young children. Public outrage and anguish are high. In contrast to his past responses, President Obama has pledged to use “whatever power his office holds” to prevent more mass shootings and has acted on that pledge.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama announced an interagency task force, headed by Vice President Joe Biden and aimed at coming up with proposals by the end of January. On Thursday, Mr. Biden convened a meeting of law-enforcement officials and cabinet members at the White House, and said he sees “no reason why the assault weapons ban” can’t pass Congress.

Given Republicans’ continued control of the House and ability to filibuster legislation in the Senate, that may be easier said than done. But what’s clear is that the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School has left an indelible impression on Americans like no other recent event. And as the national conversation continues, the 4.3-million-member NRA is in a delicate position.

“The NRA is between a rock and a hard place because kids were involved,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “The one thing the NRA must do is at least look like it’s a willing partner in this conversation.”

At his news conference Wednesday, Obama was given an opportunity to reach out to the NRA, but instead of appealing to its leaders, he addressed its members. 

“The NRA is an organization who has members who are mothers and fathers, and I would expect that they’ve been impacted by this, as well,” he said. “And, hopefully, they’ll do some self-reflection.”

Proponents of gun control point to a survey taken last May by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, which found that 69 percent of NRA members and 85 percent of non-NRA gun owners support background checks for gun sales at gun shows. This so-called “gun-show loophole” is high on the list of measures gun-control advocates are hoping will come out of Obama’s new push for action.

Mr. Luntz, who conducted the poll for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said the poll showed that gun-owners believe that Second Amendment rights and keeping guns from criminals are “complementary, not contradictory.”

Gun-rights proponents say that closing the gun-show loophole would make an almost imperceptible dent in unlawful gun transfers – less than 1 percent, says Mr. Feldman, the former NRA official.

The NRA is expected to raise the complex issues that surround mass shootings, including mental health, law enforcement, and American culture. The organization may also point out that the weapons allegedly used by Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter who burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, were legally acquired by and registered to his mother (whom he also murdered). They also would not have been covered by the assault-weapons ban that was in place between 1994 and 2004.

But one element that is relevant is the high-capacity magazines he had – which could have been covered by the assault-weapons ban. The former ban covered magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, but only covered those manufactured after the ban went into effect.

“So people who say, ‘Let’s ban magazine capacity,’ I don’t know what they’re thinking,” says Feldman. “There are way in excess of 100 million high-capacity magazines already out there.”

He continues: “If we focus on the gun, we miss the opportunity to focus on the problem, which is how to keep the guns out of Adam’s hands. We have to ask the right questions.”

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