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Is the National Rifle Association overrated?

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The National Rifle Association is the Keyser Soze of politics.

For years, fear of the NRA has kept lawmakers for moving forward with gun control policy. In the wake of the shooting in Colorado, few members of Congress have even mentioned gun control.

“We do absolutely anything they ask and we NEVER cross them,” a Democratic legislative staffer told GQ. “They’ve completely shut down the debate over gun control.”

Yet no one is sure if the threat is real.

It’s been so long since serious gun control legislation has been introduced that the NRA’s power hasn’t been tested in over a decade. Gun rights advocates argue that the NRA is not nearly as powerful as it makes itself out to be.

“The NRA’s influence in fact is waning and is rarely significant in any election,” Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress said at a panel discussion Tuesday called “After Aurora: Dispelling the Myth of NRA Power.”

The NRA is widely credited with the helping cause the 1994 GOP landslide in Congress after Democrats passed an assault-weapons ban. (The comparable Soze moment — the “gang of Hungarians.”)

But CAP’s Paul Waldman points out that lots of controversial legislation passed in President Bill Clinton’s first two years, including Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the 1993 budget. There was also the disastrous attempt at universal health-care reform.

A study of the 1994 elections found a two-point boost for Republican challengers from the NRA’s endorsement, but no effect for Republican incumbents or Democrats. The same study found no effect at all in 1996. So while the NRA was a factor in 1994, it was not decisive.

CAP’s Paul Waldman came to the same conclusion looking at election results from 2004 to 2010 — that Republican challengers endorsed by the NRA did two points better than Republican challengers not endorsed by the NRA. The endorsement had no effect for incumbent Republicans or any Democrats.

Most candidates endorsed by the NRA win reelection; but most candidates endorsed by the group are safe Republicans in safe Republican seats.

Conventional wisdom has it that NRA members could be mobilized to vote against any politician who backs gun control.

But Republican pollster Frank Luntz is out with a new survey suggesting that the reforms being discussed lately are fine with most NRA members.

Luntz, working on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, found that large majorities of NRA members support background checks for all gun purchases, gun safety training for concealed-carry permits and the denial of permits for people with records of violent misdemeanors.

Of course, the NRA doesn’t just have members; it has money. But while the group spends many millions every cycle, it spreads that money around.

In a few competitive races in 2010, the NRA did play big, going beyond endorsements to pour money into races.

The group spent $1,692,056 in the Pennsylvania Senate race that put Pat Toomey (R) into office. But Pro-Toomey outside groups spent $14,123,574 on that race; the NRA came in fourth in spending behind the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Club for Growth and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Toomey himself spent nearly $17 million. So while the NRA was a major donor, the group was hardly THE major donor.

The NRA also spent $1.3 million of the $7.3 million spent in Missouri to help now-Sen. Roy Blunt (R), coming in only behind American Crossroads on the GOP side, and $574,957 of the $2.6 million spent by outside groups in Wisconsin for now-Sen. Ron Johnson (R), behind only the Chamber of Commerce. (Johnson largely self-funded his campaign, spending about $14 million)

Some of the group’s top recipients were losers — Ken Buck in Colorado ($746,078), Dino Rossi in Washington ($414,100) and Carly Fiorina in California ($258,323).

In the House, the NRA’s two most expensive races were upsets where Republicans replaced Democrats. But in neither race was the NRA one of the biggest spenders. Outside groups spent $1.5 million to back now-Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.); $86,712 of that came from the NRA. Outside groups spent $3.4 million to help now-Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) — of that, $80,470 came from the NRA.

In the NRA’s third-biggest House race in 2010, the group spent $78,779 in support of California’s Andy Vidak (R), who lost.

“You don’t have to fear so much that even dipping your toe in that water is going to bring down a ton of bricks from the NRA,” said Waldman on the panel.

The fact remains that gun control legislation is going nowhere. But on the state level, some Republicans are testing the NRA’s power.

GOP leaders in the Tennessee legislature refused to move a bill to prevent businesses from banning guns on their property. Similar legislation died in Alabama and is stalled in Kansas, and Georgia has resisted changes the NRA wants. Legislation to allow guns in bars in North Carolina is also stalled.

The NRA has put $75,000 behind a primary challenger to Tennessee state Rep. Debra Maggart (R) — more than the group has spent on many U.S. House races. State races are less expensive and less predictable than national ones. But the Aug. 2 result might give some hint of whether the group’s bite is as bad as its bark.

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