The Fairfax County-based organization, founded in the 19th century to promote marksmanship, expanded after the assassinations of the 1960s and now claims 4 million members. It is the face of the gun rights movement, pushing its agenda in courts, city council chambers and state capitals in addition to Congress.
It has an iconic image, tapping movie star Charlton Heston as its leader in the late 1990s, and has had an eclectic roster on its board, including actor Tom Selleck, basketball star Karl Malone and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The most prominent NRA spokesman now is its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, who warned a conservative audience this year that if Obama won reelection, “America as we know it will be on its way to being lost forever.” He also described the president’s lack of action on gun control in his first term as a “massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.”
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The NRA’s continued clout could be seen Wednesday, when one of its Democratic friends, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, toned down comments he made earlier in the week expressing openness to a new assault-weapons ban. Citing a statement Tuesday by the NRA on the Newtown shootings in which the group said it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions” to the debate, Manchin told a West Virginia radio host that he was “so proud of the NRA and so pleased that they have agreed to be a part of this.” He said: “I’m not supporting a ban on anything. I’m supporting a conversation on everything.”
NRA officials declined to comment for this article and have remained out of public view since Friday. The Tuesday statement said the group was “shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.” NRA officials have a news conference planned for Friday.
The growing partisan divide was evident this week when House Democrats announced a strategy to reach beyond the NRA’s Washington leadership to appeal to its members, who polls suggest support some restrictions.
“There will be a growing wedge between the extreme positions and tactics of the Washington-based lobbyists for the NRA and its grass-roots membership,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in an interview after a meeting with his fellow Democrats.
Obama hinted at a news conference Wednesday that he would follow a similar playbook, describing the NRA as “an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers,” who would welcome some restrictions.
House Democrats, wary of being portrayed as urban elites who want to strip Americans of their gun rights, looked to one of their few remaining members with some bona fides to lead the effort, tapping Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.), a hunter and wounded Vietnam War veteran.
Thompson said he has requested a meeting with NRA leaders and has been hearing from avid hunters and some Republicans back home, telling him, “We do not need these assault weapons. What can I do to help you?”