Months later, Maggart was stunned to see NRA-sponsored ads on billboards in her district. Her face was next to a picture of President Obama. The ads proclaimed: “Sure, Rep. Debra Maggart Says She Supports Your Gun Rights. Of Course, He Says the Same Thing.”
The NRA threw its support behind a newcomer in the Republican primary. By summer’s end, the woman who had been one of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans and ardent supporters of gun rights was done in by hardball tactics.
“As a pro-Second Amendment person and a life member of the NRA, I was just shocked they did this to me,” Maggart said in an interview. “They did this to send a message: ‘If you don’t do what we want, we will annihilate you.’ ”
The message has not been lost on lawmakers across the nation, including those in the U.S. Senate, where a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases died April 17 in the face of the NRA’s staunch opposition.
For longtime NRA members, the Senate vote was not surprising. The group has turned the debate over gun control into a clarion call for constitutional rights. Any perceived assault on the Second Amendment is met with a withering counterattack. Even conservative lawmakers who cross the NRA are labeled as traitors. The NRA has been so effective over the years that gun-control groups are now trying to adopt some of the same tactics.
Well-organized NRA members and affiliated groups of gun owners hold rallies and pour resources into political campaigns. They flood local and national legislative offices with e-mails and phone calls. They make unannounced visits to the offices of lawmakers. The NRA’s lobbying arm posts myriad “Alerts,” calling on millions of members across the country to rise up at a moment’s notice.
It’s more about organizing muscle and less about political money.
A spokesman for the NRA did not return calls requesting comment.
“The NRA knows how to play very effective hardball,” said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the book “Ricochet,” an inside account of gun politics and tactics. “They have turned this into a symbolic issue. It’s no longer about guns. It’s about freedom and responsibility and liberty.”
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he could sense a “sea change” in gun politics. He issued a public pledge: He would not “shy away” from challenging the NRA, which has great influence in his state.
That was before Begich was overwhelmed by phone calls and e-mails from NRA members and other gun rights activists. They warned him against voting for expanded background checks, to stop violating “our gun rights,” and to break with the Democratic Party or face the consequences in the next election.