correction: This op-ed originally misstated that the National Rifle Association supported a background-check ballot initiative in Nevada. It opposed the initiative.
John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
The usual anguished questions followed the mass shooting late on Nov. 7 at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Twelve people, including a sheriff’s sergeant, were fatally shot by a young man with a Glock .45-caliber handgun, who then turned the gun on himself. But there was a fresh question in the aftermath of this slaughter: Would the midterm election results the day before lead to changes in U.S. gun laws, or would the National Rifle Association once again stand in the way of common-sense reform?
An answer is emerging: The NRA — for decades one of the country’s most formidable electoral machines — suffered a major breakdown at the ballot box on Nov. 6. In race after race, Republican candidates with NRA grades of A or A-plus lost to Democrats who ran hard on gun-safety credentials.
Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), hailed by President Trump in April 2017 as “totally for the NRA,” lost her congressional seat to Lucy McBath, a leader of the gun-safety movement whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot in a Jacksonville, Fla., parking lot in 2012 by someone who objected to the music he was playing.
Kris Kobach, who once drove a truck mounted with a replica machine gun in a parade, failed in his bid for governor in deep-red Kansas.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, whose Virginia congressional district is in the NRA’s backyard and who had enjoyed more than $137,000 in NRA spending on her behalf since 2014, is now looking for a job.
The list goes on. In the 43 races where candidates endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety — a gun-violence-prevention organization that I represent — ran against NRA-endorsed candidates, 78 percent of the gun-safety candidates won (with three of the races yet to be called).
But if you want to understand exactly how the NRA lost its political mojo, look to the Nevada governor’s race.
In 2016, gun-safety advocates in Nevada introduced a ballot initiative to expand background checks to all unlicensed gun sales. The NRA responded by pouring more than $6.6 million into a campaign to defeat the initiative. The push included an attack ad starring Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general.
But despite the best efforts of the NRA and Laxalt, Nevada voters passed the initiative. Laxalt could have — should have — respected the outcome. Instead, he fought implementation, siding with the NRA over the wishes of Nevadans who have voted to prevent gun violence.
The people noticed. A Suffolk University-Reno Gazette Journal poll in July found that two-thirds of Nevada voters wanted to see the background-check law implemented. This was bad news for Laxalt, who by this time was running for governor. But if Laxalt was hoping the NRA would bail him out, he was mistaken. Appearing to have been chastened by Americans’ growing fury over tragedies such as the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 concertgoers dead, as well as the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and staff members were killed in February, the NRA kept a low profile in the 2018 midterm campaigns: The organization’s political spending was down about 68 percent compared with the 2014 midterms.
In the end, the NRA spent just $23,829 to help Laxalt’s gubernatorial campaign — far less than 1 percent of its spending to oppose the background-check ballot initiative two years earlier. Laxalt lost last week to Steve Sisolak, a champion of sensible gun laws who has vowed to expand background checks.
The defeat of Laxalt and so many other politicians who cast their lot with the gun lobby carries two lessons for other politicians. The first is that, politically, the NRA is increasingly toxic, with many voters deciding that an A grade from the NRA might as well be a scarlet letter.
The second lesson is that supporting common-sense gun laws isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s good politics, too. An NBC News exit poll last week found that 60 percent of voters support stronger gun policies. A great place for lawmakers to start would be strengthening the background-check system, which in many states is riddled with loopholes. In January, the 116th Congress should consider the midterm results a mandate to act.