The National Rifle Association has money, motivated members and powerful allies in Congress. But what puts the NRA in a separate class among interest groups is its track record of defeating incumbents.
In Washington, that is real power.
Thus, calls for new gun control measures after the Virginia Tech shootings are likely to face a difficult path on Capitol Hill — even with Democrats now in charge.
"The NRA has pretty much set the agenda for the Congress, so we'll see," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a gun control advocate who represents an urban district near Chicago. "Even after Columbine, we didn't really make progress in moving forward."
In fact, the 2006 midterm elections actually may have enhanced the NRA's strength.
Although many of the NRA's fiercest defenders were defeated, Democrats won control after recruiting conservative candidates who ousted Republican incumbents in western and southern states.
When the new Congress was sworn in, executive director Chris W. Cox reassured NRA members by noting that the House included 24 pro-gun freshmen: 11 Democrats and 13 Republicans. In the Senate, four pro-gun freshmen took seats: three Democrats and one Republican.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has made it clear that protecting those fragile newcomers is one of her highest priorities. Insisting that the House vote on a major gun control bill would run counter to that — and Cox will be bent on making sure there are consequences. "By the yeas and nays, we will separate the true believers from the camouflage candidates," he vowed in the weeks after the elections.
Still, gun control advocates hope to use the emotional fallout from the Virginia tragedy as an opportunity to reopen a debate about the availability of guns that was largely silenced in 1994 when Republicans took over Congress.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the organization's e-mail system crashed at midday Monday as the full horror of the campus killings became evident. A stream of television appearances soon followed, prompting Helmke to race home to trade his turtleneck and jacket for a suit.
Dozens of Americans die every day from gunshot injuries, he said, adding: "This isn't an incurable disease. There are steps we can take that can reduce gun violence. We need the political will and the public pressure to get this done."
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed by a gunman in a 1993 Long Island commuter train rampage, on Tuesday stepped up pressure to move legislation to enhance enforcement of current gun laws. Legislation also has been introduced in the Senate that aims to better control guns in courthouses, a measure responding to the 2005 courthouse killings in Atlanta, and one that would crack down on drug traffickers.
"If this doesn't" jump-start debate, Helmke said, "nothing will."
But he conceded it is an uphill fight. "If anything, we've gone backwards," he said, noting that a 1994 assault weapons ban that was largely credited with helping to defeat House Democrats and pave the way for GOP control of Congress was allowed to expire in September 2004.
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., voiced frustration with all the political calculations. "We are captives, the majority here, of the NRA. To hell with the NRA! What about the society? I don't get it."
At its towering headquarters in Fairfax, the NRA was also bracing for a potential showdown. Staff members were in strategy meetings most of the day, and NRA state representatives were instructed not to speak publicly. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families," the organization said in a public statement Monday. The NRA declined to provide comment for this report.
Much of the infrastructure the organization needs for a legislative showdown was built years ago and has been maintained since. Between 1997 and 2006, the NRA spent nearly $16 million on outside lobbying shops that worked alongside its five full-time lobbyists.
Between 1990 and 2006, the organization doled out another $16 million in campaign contributions, of which 83 percent went to Republicans. The organization has also invested millions in campaign television and billboard advertising, and delivery of its 15 million-strong direct-mail voter scorecard can move the polls in House races overnight.
Its membership stands at about 3.8 million, down about 200,000 from 2004. But the relatively small rank and file can have outsized political impact because their members vote at a higher rate — 95 percent — than the overall electorate.
In addition, studies have shown that many of the nation's millions of hunters believe, sometimes incorrectly, that they are NRA members. Sporting organizations often team up with the rifle group, creating a broad coalition that can be critical in tight elections. The alliance between hunters and gun rights groups has even helped the NRA infiltrate one of the Democrats' most loyal constituencies: organized labor.
In Detroit, the United Auto Workers union had written into its contract a holiday on the first day of hunting season. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (Mich.), one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and a former NRA director, has long undermined his party's efforts to push through tough new gun laws.
In 2000, union households with gun owners split evenly between Al Gore and George W. Bush. That helps explain why in 2004 a gun-toting, fatigues-clad Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, allowed photographers to capture a shot of him hunting in Ohio a month before Election Day.
Now Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., must make similar political calculations. Pelosi's ambivalence was evident when she left a Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday.
"We're in mourning right now. When we're doing our legislative work, we'll do our legislative work," she said. "I've spoken to Carolyn McCarthy, but only in terms that we will speak again because this was not the arena to have this conversation."
Similarly, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged caution. "I hope there's not a rush to do anything," Reid said. He declined to say whether the NRA holds too much sway on Capitol Hill. "It's not really good today to cast aspersions, either positively or negatively."
But advocates of gun control openly cited the power of the NRA in offering pessimistic predictions about a legislative response to the Virginia tragedy.
"This is a tough political issue for Democrats and Republicans," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif. "I think it's an important one for Democrats and Republicans to join together in supporting legislation and not cower just because the National Rifle Association may disagree with us."
Josephine Hearn, Beth Frerking and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
By Jeanne Cummings
TM & © 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company