The National Rifle Association and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both got serious about politics in 1977. That May, a coup at the NRA led to the installation of a new president who was determined to turn the organization from a sportsmen’s association into a political kingmaker. Five months later, McConnell won his first political contest, becoming the county executive of Louisville, Kentucky.
Over the next 43 years, McConnell and the NRA grew into political institutions—and they did it with help from each other. All told, the NRA has poured $1.3 million into McConnell’s Senate campaigns. The organization also helped him amass power in Congress, spending more than $20 million in 2014 to elect a Republican majority to the Senate, and $50 million more in 2016 to hold that majority and elect Donald Trump. For his part, McConnell has been a loyal foot soldier to the gun lobby, reliably shutting down any attempt to push common-sense gun safety laws through the Senate, even as nearly 40,000 Americans are killed by gun violence every year.
But with the 2020 election just weeks away, both McConnell and the NRA are teetering on the precipice of a steep political fall. FiveThirtyEight now gives Democrats the edge when it comes to winning the Senate. And the future looks even bleaker for the NRA, which is imploding before our eyes. The once-mighty lobbying group is now under investigation by multiple authorities, riven by infighting that makes the 1977 coup look like a game of Uno, and slowly losing support among Republicans politicians. But even as it becomes increasingly clear that both McConnell and the NRA are in serious trouble, the Majority Leader is trying to jam through one last gift to the gun lobby: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
To put it simply, Judge Barrett would be a dream Supreme Court Justice for the NRA — and a nightmare when it comes to the safety of the American people. Just last year, she wrote an alarming opinion opposing laws to keep guns away from people convicted of serious crimes. In Kanter v. Barr, a man who committed fraud argued that laws prohibiting people convicted of felonies from possessing firearms should not apply to him. Two other Republican-appointed judges rejected his argument, noting that laws to disarm felons are “substantially related to the important government objective of keeping firearms away from those convicted of serious crimes.” But Judge Barrett argued that categorically barring non-violent felons from possessing guns violates the Second Amendment — an approach that no federal court of appeals has adopted. She went on to criticize her fellow judges as treating “the Second Amendment as a ‘second-class right'” — adopting language regularly invoked by the gun lobby.
Through this opinion and other public statements, Judge Barrett has made it clear that she takes an originalist approach to the Second Amendment, and is not inclined to consider whether a law advances public safety. This interpretation aligns her with Justices Kavanaugh and Thomas, and means that if she is confirmed, any law that was created to keep guns away from people with serious criminal histories could potentially be in jeopardy. That includes laws requiring people to pass a background check before buying a deadly weapon, which are supported by 90 percent of Americans. In other words, the overwhelming majority of voters could be overruled by five Justices who believe the Second Amendment gives pretty much anyone the right to carry pretty much any gun pretty much anywhere.
The human cost of the Supreme Court striking down existing gun laws would be tragically high. To cite just one proof point, states that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed gun sales are associated with 10 percent lower homicide rates, and markedly lower suicide rates.
But if that isn’t enough to make Republican Senators think twice before confirming Judge Barrett, they should also consider the political cost. Republican Senators who aren’t up for re-election this year may believe they have nothing to fear from defying the people’s will and lining up behind Judge Barrett. After all, a few years is a lifetime in politics, and some Senators may be hoping the people will forget about this vote by the next election.
But the gun safety movement has learned one key lesson from McConnell and the NRA: Politics is a long game. McConnell proved that when he blocked Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, for nearly a year. And the NRA has spent the last four decades constructing the myth that gun safety is the third rail of American politics.
Now gun safety voters are playing the same long game—and they’re winning. Last year’s elections in Virginia are a prime example. After Republican leaders in the state legislature did absolutely nothing in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach, voters registered their outrage in November, when they elected a gun sense majority to the statehouse. We saw a similar story play out in Nevada, where former Attorney General Adam Laxalt lost his bid for Governor after refusing to implement a successful ballot initiative to expand background checks.
Senators who vote to confirm Judge Barrett should take note, and expect gun safety voters to hold them accountable the next time they’re up for election. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a steadfast gun safety supporter, said it well: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” When it comes to changing our gun laws, the first step is electing gun sense champions — and more voters than ever are entering the ballot box with that goal at the top of their mind.
John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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