The long (and sometimes turbulent) history of the NRA and the GOP

January 17, 2013

President Obama’s Wednesday pitch for sweeping new gun control laws included a nod to a conservative icon: Ronald Reagan.

The mention of the former president's support for gun control was a reminder that the relationship between the National Rifle Association and the GOP hasn’t always been a cozy one.


(Ira Schwarz/AP)

In presenting his new gun control proposals, Obama said that not only do most Americans agree with his call to ban assault weapons, but that Reagan also supported the idea.

“Ronald Reagan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment...wrote to Congress in 1994, urging them -- this is Ronald Reagan speaking -- urging them to ‘listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of [military-style assault] weapons,’” Obama said.

Indeed, Reagan, a hero in the eyes of many modern day conservatives, joined two other former presidents in support of a ban, which the NRA staunchly opposed.

“While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals,” Reagan, former Republican president Gerald Ford, and former Democratic president Jimmy Carter wrote in a spring 1994 letter to lawmakers.

The survivor of a 1981 assassination attempt that left his press secretary, James Brady, permanently disabled, Reagan had firsthand experience with gun violence that shaped his approach to gun control. In a 1991 op-ed, Reagan explained his support for the Brady Bill – named for his press secretary – that instituted a waiting period on gun purchases.

“Four lives were changed forever,” Reagan wrote of the attempt on his life. “And all by a Saturday-night special -- a cheaply made .22 caliber pistol -- purchased in a Dallas pawnshop by a young man with a history of mental disturbance. This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now -- the Brady bill -- had been law back in 1981.”

Reagan wasn’t the only former Republican president who bucked the NRA in the 1990s: Former president George H.W. Bush resigned from the organization in 1995 after an NRA fundraising letter described some federal agents as "jack-booted thugs."

"I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as ‘jack-booted thugs,’” Bush wrote in 1995. “To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people."

In the current debate over guns, Obama's Reagan remark signaled his desire to win support from those who aren’t already squarely behind him on the matter or who don't think of themselves as Democrats but might share common cause with the president on this matter. Gun control advocates are waging a national effort to build consensus that transcends the party line divisions that have seized other high-stakes legislative battles. Thus, Obama citing Reagan on Wednesday is probably not the last time we will hear such an argument in the debate over guns.

But it will likely be difficult to find many Republicans willing to break ranks with the NRA. For now at least, the reality is that the NRA maintains close ties with the Republican Party, a fact that has shaped the debate over guns. As we noted in this space on Wednesday, over 90 percent of the 2012 congressional candidates to whom the NRA contributed were Republicans.

And when it comes to an assault weapons ban – the item in Obama’s new set of proposals which has stoked the most pushback from opponents so far -- there is a notable division along party lines, polling shows.

Over time, as the NRA evolved from a group focused on marksmanship to the most powerful organization in the gun rights lobby, it has become increasingly tied to the GOP – a development The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach, Scott Higham, and Sari Horowitz detailed in a thoroughly reported story published over the weekend. And as the GOP has grown more conservative, the NRA’s uncompromising message has carried a lot of weight among its ranks.

For Obama and other gun control advocates, the challenge of finding those willing to crossover is no small task. It will be hard enough to secure support from red state congressional Democrats, many of whom are headed for tough reelection bids in 2014. The GOP and the NRA have clashed before, but the present moment doesn't appear to be ripe for a new rift.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · January 17, 2013