Nobody has come in for more criticism from the right over the Senate’s bipartisan gun bill than Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). Cornyn has spearheaded the negotiations and isn’t backing down despite the attacks — from Donald Trump, from Fox News and from his own state GOP.
And, in fact, Cornyn offered some pretty unvarnished comments Wednesday about the National Rifle Association — comments that amount to a significant and unusual rebuke of the nation’s leading gun group from a leading GOP senator.
While speaking to reporters about the bill, Cornyn emphasized that the NRA was consulted extensively. But he indicated that the group would never be onboard with pretty much anything because of its “business model.”
“We worked with the NRA, listened to their concerns, but in the end I think they simply — they have a membership and a business model that will not allow them to support any legislation,” Cornyn said.
He added: “And so I understand where they’re coming from, but I think most people will not allow any outside group to veto good public policy.”
This is not how Republicans usually talk about the NRA.
The implication of Cornyn’s comments — particularly the “business model” part — is that the issue is perhaps less about principled policy disagreements than fundraising and the NRA’s political power. GOP supporters of the bill think the NRA was pretty amenable to the proposal, but that it ultimately opposed the bill because it couldn’t be seen as supporting anything that could even be construed as “gun control.” (Indeed, the bill stops well shy of what Democrats wanted — for example, an assault weapons ban, or taking away the firearm industry’s immunity from lawsuits — and even of the failed Toomey-Manchin proposal from a decade ago.)
Of course, that posture has been readily apparent for a long time; the NRA has made it abundantly clear that it regards virtually any new gun restrictions — however modest, as the current ones are — as a slippery slope. And it has steadfastly opposed most everything, save for briefly suggesting in 2018 that it might entertain red-flag laws after a school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
But you generally don’t see Republican politicians saying it so bluntly.
NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter responded Thursday: “The NRA represents millions of members and gun owners. They join the NRA because we help protect and advance their Second Amendment, self-defense and hunting rights, and oppose gun control legislation. Representing the interests of our members all across the country is our business model.”
Cornyn’s comments drew praise from Fred Guttenberg, the parent of one of the Parkland victims. He thanked Cornyn for “speaking truth” about the NRA.
The comments are particularly significant, given Cornyn’s stature in the GOP. The former No. 2-ranking Republican Senate leader, he’s considered a possible successor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell also supports the bipartisan deal, but he’s already got the top job, and there are no real signs of him being dislodged, despite Trump’s efforts. And Cornyn has more to lose by alienating a group like the NRA. His rivals to succeed McConnell, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), both oppose the bill, which is certainly the easiest political call for an ambitious Republican.
There are very few examples of Republicans thumbing their nose at the NRA in recent years. As president, Trump on multiple occasions suggested that he might buck the group — both after Parkland and in early 2019. He at one point told GOP senators to their faces that they were “scared” and even “petrified” of the NRA and added: “They have great power over you people; they have less power over me.” But he did nothing to back up those tough words. Indeed, despite expressing support for red-flag laws back then, he’s now attacking the current bill for merely providing funding to encourage states to adopt the policy he once supported.
That’s pretty par for the course for Trump, whose principles have always been highly malleable. And however much he protests otherwise, he has always been highly sensitive to anything that could even potentially alienate the right wing or groups that have sway over it.
Cornyn’s comments about the political power dynamics and the NRA are less direct, but they’re no less significant, given that they’re backed up by action that challenges the group. And they’ll become more significant if other Republicans — 14 other GOP senators support the legislation — summon the courage to talk about the organizationally wounded group in even somewhat similar ways.
We shouldn’t count on that, but they’ve already shown more willingness to buck the NRA than at any time in recent memory.
This post has been updated with the NRA’s response.