How The NRA Might Actually Help Pass Background Checks

The National Rifle Association doesn’t support a bipartisan Senate agreement unveiled Wednesday to expand background checks for some gun purchases. But so far, the powerful gun industry lobby also isn’t committing to targeting lawmakers who vote for the proposal.

If that position holds, the NRA could tacitly give conservative senators in both parties the green light to help pass the compromise legislation through the Senate.The NRA’s official statement about the compromise praised the rejection of “universal” background checks as a positive development but was muted on the specifics of the deal struck by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) — both of whom have “A” ratings from the group.

“We are opposed to Manchin-Toomey,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam clarified in an email to TPM. He didn’t respond to a several follow-ups about whether voting for the amendment will damage a senator’s NRA vote score or will subject them to campaign attacks.

That strikes the right balance.

If the NRA was truly threatening to downgrade a lawmaker’s rating or launch ads against him or her for supporting the Manchin-Toomey measure (as they have on the assault weapons ban and high-capacity ammunition limit), it would scare away virtually every Republican and numerous conservative Democrats. The bill would likely be doomed.

On the other hand, if the NRA came out for the Manchin-Toomey background checks amendment, it would raise the eyebrows of gun control supporters, who might demand more. How effective, they might ask, would any measure be if it’s supported by the brash gun lobby that has led the destruction of every meaningful gun restriction effort for nearly two decades?

Manchin said during the unveiling he’d been in “constant dialogue” with the NRA while crafting the legislation.

“Yes, we’ve spoken to the NRA,” he said. “We’ve strengthened the rights of law-abiding gun owners like myself and Pat to be able to exercise our Second Amendment right. But we’ve also, I think, done a tremendous favor to the citizens of our great country on background checks.”

The NRA’s balancing act also appears to jibe with its self-interest. Coming out in full force against the Manchin-Toomey compromise, and potentially scuttling it, could expose the NRA politically the next time there’s a mass shooting. But saying they oppose the bill returns the favor to lawmakers like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), who have pledged to filibuster any new gun restriction in a show of solidarity with the pro-gun cause. It also protects the group’s right flank against a more far-right organization called the Gun Owners of America has been portraying the NRA as too squishy and willing to compromise.

“The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedies in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson,” the NRA’s statement read. “President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers.”