PITTSBURGH — The National Rifle Association is vying to remain relevant in the 2012 presidential election, with a Democratic president who has not made gun control a priority and many NRA members expecting gun issues to take a back seat to the economy, health care and foreign policy.
At the group’s annual meeting in Pittsburgh this weekend, NRA leaders and potential Republican candidates warned members again and again from the stage that a second term would give President Obama free rein to restrict gun rights.
“What do you lose if President Obama wins?” asked NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox, as he sought more donations and new members. “You tell me. What if he appoints just one more anti-gun justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we go from one-vote victories to one-vote defeats for generations to come. What’s that going to cost?”
But on the convention floor, amid dozens of stalls exhibiting hunting gear, high-powered binoculars and guns of every size and shape, NRA members said they think issues other than guns are likely to drive the vote.
“I’d be surprised if they’re an issue at all,” said Steve Miller, 61, a photographer and competitive pistol shooter from Harrisburg, Pa., who like other members, is opposed to Obama’s reelection for other reasons. “The Democrats spent all their fire on health care, and now, nobody will touch guns. If they do, it’s a death knell.”
In what might be a sign of the pecking order of top issues for the 2012 race, a jobs forum in New Hampshire this weekend, organized by the fiscally conservative group Americans for Prosperity, drew more of the top-tier likely Republican presidential candidates than the massive NRA convention.
NRA members heard speeches from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, businessman Herman Cain and a keynote address from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Each are considering campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination.
Part of the NRA’s challenge is coping with its own successes.
Obama’s win in 2008 interrupted a string of victories for the gun group that had resulted in the advancement of its policy agenda in Congress and statehouses around the country, and the election of gun-friendly candidates from both parties.
Renewed calls for gun support following the January shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) have found little support in Congress.
And though gun owners stocked up on ammunition and weapons after his election in anticipation of restrictions, Obama has not pushed for the reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. He has also signed legislation that allows guns to be carried in national parks and on Amtrak.
The wins have convinced some members that whatever his personal views, Obama would be hamstrung to go after guns, freeing them to look to other issues in the upcoming election.
“He’s been dead silent on guns because he’s scared to death of us,” said William Shelley, 58, an electrical lineman from Liberty, Mo., attending his 12th NRA meeting. “He’s learned not to talk about guns.”
The NRA has famously vast resources to call on to convince its members of the dangers of complacency. In addition to its 4 million dues-paying members, a Washington Post analysis this fall showed the group has spent $74.6 million on campaign contributions in the last 20 years and tens of millions more on voter education efforts.
“We’re just one bill away or one election away from having our rights infringed on,” said Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), a member of the NRA’s board of directors. “It’s why we have to redouble our efforts.”
Critics say the NRA overstates the threat to gun rights in order to drive donations, particularly in the wake of a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming gun ownership as an individual right.
“In my mind, the NRA should have said mission accomplished and gone home after the ruling,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “But then they wouldn’t be able to raise money.”
But the NRA argues the ruling was tenuous — won in a 5 to 4 ruling that could be overturned if Obama is reelected and appoints more justices to the court.
They argue that Obama has also begun to show more interest in the gun issue. Warning of the use of U.S. guns in Mexican drug crimes, the administration has proposed new rules requiring gun dealers in border states to report multiple sales of rifles, a requirement already in place for handguns.
At the same time, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is investigating charges that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed the sale of hundreds of assault weapons on the border, knowing they would be taken to Mexico and used by drug lords, as part of a program to track gun sales.
NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre on Saturday called for Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to resign over the program, which he said is part of an effort to blame gun dealers for Mexican crime.
“There’s always concern about apathy,” said Cox in an interview. “But what you’ve seen with NRA members and gun owners as a voting bloc is that they’re not only very loyal, they’re very savvy. They know how important these elections are.”
With the potential Republicans field split, one place gun owners could play a major role is as kingmaker among the possible candidates. But NRA members in Pittsburgh were as divided as any other GOP constituency group over the field.
Some said they favored Romney’s business background. Others said Romney is non-starter because he supported an individual health insurance mandate in Massachusetts. Some saw Gingrich as the intellectual force in the party. Others viewed him as a stale face from the past.
But on one issue, members said, they saw little daylight between the candidates: guns.
“Obamacare will still be there. The budget fight will be going on. The Republicans don’t want any other issues on the table,” said Dennis Dyckman, 65, a nuclear engineer from Harrisburg, Pa.