Beneath the surface, however, some of the NRA’s allies are uneasy, saying publicly and privately that the organization is facing long-term — and even short-term — challenges on a scale it has not faced before.
Those challenges include changing demographics and patterns of gun ownership; a new willingness of gun-state lawmakers, particularly Democrats, to buck the NRA; and the rise of an organized and well-funded gun-control movement.
The concerns are playing out in a debate over whether the NRA and gun-rights advocates made a mistake by pugnaciously opposing all of this year’s major gun-control proposals — including legislation expanding background checks for gun purchases sponsored by two NRA-backed senators, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). That measure failed in a high-profile vote last month.
In recent days, one of the country’s best-known gun-rights advocates, Robert Levy, criticized the gun lobby for strenuously blocking the background check initiative on Capitol Hill. Levy, who was part of the legal team that won recent landmark gun-rights cases, also chairs the Cato Institute, an influential libertarian think tank that advocates for Second Amendment rights.
“The stonewalling of the background check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively,” Levy said recently, noting that public opinion favors such an approach. In an interview and in online blogs, Levy called for improvements in the legislation but noted overall that the Manchin-Toomey effort is “far better than the legal regime we now have.”
Levy has disagreed with NRA strategy in the past. But his views have been reinforced by others in recent weeks, most significantly by the votes of NRA-backed lawmakers who felt free to break with the gun lobby and support the background check proposal, particularly Democrats such as Jon Tester of Montana.
Pennsylvania may provide the most stark example of a reason for NRA worry. The state has one of the highest concentrations of NRA members in the country. Yet both senators — Toomey and Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. — agreed to cross the NRA this year on its most high-profile vote of the year. In addition, three GOP House members from Pennsylvania, endorsed in the past by the NRA, have indicated support for the senators’ approach.
Still, NRA board member Grover Norquist says that NRA officials are thrilled with the results the NRA achieved this year on the state and national levels — accomplished despite the full-court press by the Obama White House and its gun-control allies.