The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NRA-ification of the Republican Party

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The National Rifle Association, the all-powerful guardian of Americans' gun rights and driving force of America's pro-gun policies, is arguably more influential than ever.

It has largely dominated and pretty much won the modern-day gun-control war. It has wielded its dollars and political influence over lawmakers in both parties to ensure Congress doesn't pass even a limited (and polls show, popular) expansion of gun-control laws such as universal background checks. And it has withstood the charge even as the country deals with an average mass shooting a day in 2015.

[President Obama waves the white flag on guns]

It's now safe to say the NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations of all time. And according to the latest Pew Research poll, Republicans are overwhelming in favor of that.

The survey taken July 14-20 on gun rights found that just 13 percent of Republicans think the NRA has too much influence.

And that's actually down -- significantly -- from 2000, when 32 percent of Republicans (one in three!) thought the NRA had too much sway.

As you can see from the chart above, Democrats disagree with Republicans on the NRA wholeheartedly. And they are moving in the other direction.

That partisan split could provide a hint as to why Republicans are so united today behind the NRA. Some of America's biggest social-issue shifts have been driven by motives other than ideology; young people regardless of party have buoyed America's increasing tolerance of same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, for example.

Gun rights, by contrast, have magnetized Americans toward the political poles. So Republicans might be naturally lining up with the more conservative factions in their party on everything from gun rights to immigration.

[The sad reality of how we feel about mass shootings, in 3 charts]

But Republicans also have a fairly complex relationship with gun laws. And in fact, the shift described above might undersell it.

Witness their changes over time on the idea of protecting gun ownership versus controlling it. Republicans' lines are much squigglier than Democrats. But the trend among Republicans since 2008 is clear as day: gun rights over gun control. What was an even split seven years ago is now a 3-to-1 edge in favor of gun rights.

What's more, Republicans are arguably at odds with the NRA on several basic issues, such as whether to expand background checks (according to Pew79 percent of Republicans say yes; the NRA says no) and to expand laws keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill (79 percent of Republicans say yes; the NRA says we should focus on treating mental health issues instead).

For a deeper explanation of Republicans' position on the NRA, we should go back to when the organization was last under attack: the Clinton years. Gun laws were a major issue for Bill Clinton, and at the time, Pew writes, his campaign to limit the NRA's influence had broad support.

Clinton spent a lot of political capital to actually pass legislation limiting gun rights -- something no president has done since. In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill requiring federal background checks for purchases from federally licensed gun dealers. One year later, Clinton signed into law a crime bill that included a ban on assault weapons.

Gun-control supporters paid a significant political price for his success. The NRA mobilized its members -- who studies have shown to be more politically active than gun-control-supporting proponents -- and in 1994 ousted many Congress members who voted for the two bills.

It seems Republicans have been coalescing in greater numbers around the NRA ever since -- though particularly in the Obama years -- partly driven by our country's increased political polarization.

As this latest survey on gun rights shows, in the gun debate, the NRA is still king.