‘The NRA Has Basically Become Part of the Republican Party’

Janine Jackson interviewed Lee Drutman about gun control politics for the February 23, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Vox: Why Parkland could be a turning point for gun control

Lee Drutman’s article in Vox (2/21/18)

Janine Jackson: Mass shootings, like the February 14 killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, are actually a small fraction of gun deaths in the United States, but they hold a particular horror. And their wake, in which politicians and pundits tangle themselves in knots, arguing about the real cause and why other people’s ideas for responses won’t work, generates an enervating sense of frustration with the political process.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are looking to break the stasis around gun restrictions, planning walkouts and demonstrations. They don’t look like fading soon. Our guest suggests that’s one of the elements that might allow this mass shooting to actually spur substantive change.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America. He’s author of The Business of America Is Lobbying and he teaches in the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Lee Drutman.

Lee Drutman: Great to be with you.

JJ: On rules around access to lethal weaponry, as on many things, we kind of just want humans to just do better. You know? It feels slimey to have to think in terms of money, or influence or partisanship. And yet our lives are shaped by laws, as well as culture, and laws are shaped by this political process that we’ve got. So what do you see, looking at it, dry-eyed, that suggests that this might actually be a turning point for gun control?

LD: Well, a few things happening here. One, as you noted, is that the students have emerged as an impressive organizational force. They’re passionate and they appear to be growing in numbers far beyond Parkland. So that’s something that we haven’t seen before in the wake of any of these gun events.

But broader, in terms of the politics, two things are happening that are related. One is that, used to be the case that the NRA was seen as being influential, because there were a lot of Democrats who represented rural areas—and rural areas tend to be gun areas—and so these Democrats were afraid of challenging the NRA because they were afraid of losing those votes. But now the NRA no longer really supports any Democrats because there really are very few to no Democrats who represent rural areas, so the NRA has basically become part of the Republican Party, which helps it when Republicans are in charge, but also weakens it overall as an organization.

Second thing, related to that, is now the axis of politics is shifting so that the swing areas are upscale suburban areas like Parkland, where you have a lot of voters, particularly suburban moms, who may have been part of the Republican Party for economic reasons, but are moving to the Democratic Party for cultural reasons. And they are much more likely to care about school safety than they are about gun rights. So there’s a potential for that to be a new swing constituency in our politics, which puts pressure on Republicans who hope to hold those districts to support gun control.

JJ: What do you see in terms of legislation? It seems to be kind of all over the place in the states. We have laws that are making it easier to get guns. We have other laws that seem to be trying to raise some kind of hurdles or introduce steps in that process. Do you see anything meaningful in terms of actual legislation coming out of this?

LD: Since Sandy Hook, the red states have moved to loosen gun restrictions, and blue states have moved to tighten gun restrictions, and I think we’ll continue to see that, in a sort of pulling apart of this country on the cultural dimension. The red states are more conservative on cultural issues; blue states more liberal on cultural issues.

But ultimately, we need national solutions to this issue. I mean, guns can travel across state lines very easily. And here, I don’t know, the president has been a bit all over the place, as he often is, because he depends on who was the last person who he talked to, or what, you know, occurred to him in the last five seconds.

But ultimately, it’ll depend on Congress, and I would be surprised if Congress did much right now. But there’s pressure building and, unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the last mass shooting that we will see. But with each event, the pressure builds, and there’s more and more organizational force on behalf of gun control.

One of the reasons why the NRA was so feared as an organization for a long time is because there was no organizational force mobilized on behalf of gun control. There were a lot of single-issue voters who voted on gun rights. The NRA was incredibly effective at mobilizing voters on those issues. So the conventional wisdom in Washington was, you don’t want to challenge the NRA. It was how people operated.

But Pat Toomey, Republican senator from Pennsylvania, challenged the NRA, introduced legislation after Sandy Hook, and the NRA downgraded his rating, but Toomey still won. He won his primary, he won re-election. So he showed that you can be a Republican and you can challenge the NRA. He’s now reintroducing a legislation on background checks. And there are other Democrats who went along with the NRA from more conservative states and still lost. So the all-powerful NRA has lost powerful bipartisanship.

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman: “The NRA is a bit of a paper tiger, and I think more and more legislators will find that out as they challenge the NRA.”

JJ: And some of that power, as I’ve heard you and others note, is really the perception of power. It’s really the fact that folks think you can’t cross the NRA, and don’t pay so much attention to what happens when someone actually does.

LD: Well, all power is perception of power, I suppose. But if you challenge the NRA and it turns out that you’re fine politically, or it doesn’t matter, that shows that the NRA is a bit of a paper tiger, and I think more and more legislators will find that out as they challenge the NRA.

JJ: There are people who are deeply invested in the fantasy of taking out an armed killer with their own weapon, you know? And I don’t think that all the research that we have, that’s showing that more guns are not the answer, is going to reach them, necessarily, whatever Rush Limbaugh might say. He was quoted on the issue on NPR for some reason.

But I understand that support for gun control, or some restrictions on gun access, is at its highest among the public in ten years. And among those looking for change, I think I see people getting over the idea that you have to pick one response, you know? People are pointing towards a large menu of responses; let’s do all the things. That’s hopeful to me. Rather than having to say whether I care more about domestic violence or about automatic weapons, I mean. To some extent, it’s a public conversation problem, isn’t it?

LD: Certainly, public opinion seems to be moving heavily in favor of gun control, particularly after this event, I think. There have been a series of mass shootings over the last few years, more than we’ve ever experienced. The frequency of mass shootings is increasing. And I think people are taking notice.

And the NRA is increasingly taking on a very extreme position on this, that, I think, ultimately undermines their broader credibility. I mean, I understand why they’re doing that. They’re doing it because they’re an organization that needs to continually stoke a sense of fear among its members in order to get them back, and keep them donating and keep them participating. And also to keep their territory from groups even further to the right on guns. But that takes them further and further from the mainstream, and at some point, sort of Looney Tunes quality to that fantasy of everybody being armed and in constant OK Corral, shoot-em-out warfare, and that I think loses a lot of reasonable people.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, if you have any thoughts about the way that media coverage plays a role here. Any angles you’d encourage journalists to explore, or maybe stop exploring? What are your thoughts on terms of looking at media coverage of the issue going forward?

LD: Well, I think the more coverage of gun violence, the more people are concerned about it. One of the reasons that often we’ve often not seen responses to the shootings is that there’s a sort of cycle of media attention. A few days after the shooting, things move on. Now I think something feels different about this, in that we’re still talking about this a week later, which is unusual. And I think part of that has to do with the fact that these students are keeping it in the news, and there’s a continued sense of conflict. But the more this stays in the news, the harder it will be for politicians to ignore.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Lee Drutman. He’s senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, author of the book The Business of America Is Lobbying, and his article “Why Parkland Could Be a Turning Point for Gun Control” can be found on Vox.com. Lee Drutman, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

LD: Glad to be a part of the conversation; thank you.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.