Friday, December 21, 2012

Elsewhere: Kerry, NRA, More

I have one up at PP arguing that the best strategy for those who want to fight gun violence is to ignore the NRA.

At Greg's place today, my post says that it's probably a reasonable risk for Barack Obama to open up John Kerry's Senate seat. It's not clear yet whether that seat has a chance of taking a large bite out of the old, old, Senate, however.

Last night after the demise of Plan B I talked about where that leaves John Boehner -- and the fiscal cliff. Seriously: one thing that about half the commenters are missing is that it's always been the case that a final deal will get the votes of about half of House Republicans, not almost all of them. And it was always going to need, and get, half or more of the Democrats. It's always been the case, and it is now the case, that both John Boehner and Barack Obama have to support the final deal (and almost certainly the case that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell would support it). It's sort of irrelevant whether there are also plans that can get through the House only to die.

And, fine, it's a fairly boring issue, but yesterday I noted the success of a new program to get presidential candidates to plan early for the transition.

46 comments:

  1. I think the considerations in the Scott Brown post are good. I still wish the President had just stuck with Susan Rice, though.

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  2. Democrats seem to be taking Scott Brown more seriously than he deserves -- I suppose they don't want to get caught flat footed again.

    I would have much preferred Chuck Hagel, but at least we're not stuck with Susan Rice.

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    1. Hopefully Bill Weld will be running as Kerry's replacement.

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    2. I think the Hagel rumors were about him replacing Panetta at Defense.

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    3. Neil, thanks for the correction. Too bad, he'd be good in Defense too.

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    4. I don't know if Democrats are taking Brown too seriously or not, Couves. After all, he still his his campaign staff on speed dial, has high approval ratings on the personal side, and would be running in a low turn-out special election that will inevitably call out an older, whiter, more conservative electorate than even a regular mid-term, much less a presidential ballot. Having said that Coakley was a very weak opponent, and the Democrats erred in taking him lightly. There are several wild cards in play, as well. If, for instance, the GOP in VA continues to press changes to the state's electoral vote distribution, national Democrats might well press the MA legislature to change their election law in retaliation. Anyway, we will see.

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    5. Anastasios, I suppose Brown could win. But he ultimately has to win an election that's not a special election.

      I'd like to think the interests of MA votes weren't cards for the national dems to "play." In any case, it's considered unlikely to happen, because MA Democrats have already recently changed the election law to advance their perceived partisan advantage (they didn't want Mitt Romney to appoint Kerry's replacement, should Kerry become President). Presumably, they're not shameless enough to change it again, but I guess you never know.

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    6. All good points, Couves. You may be right that the best move on the GOP side would be to nominate Weld for Senate and let Brown concentrate on running for Governor. Brown's positioning on gun control may be a sign that for the time being he is more focused on internal MA issues than on positioning in the national GOP - assuming he is not just being honest, which is unlikely for a skilled politician.

      I agree that in a better world national Dems would not see MA voters as pawns, and MA Dems would not cooperate if they did. But we do not have a better world, and I am sure such discussions have been had. I also do not believe that shamelessness is much of a hindrance in politics. But who knows what might happen? The Dems have their own problems with all the talk of trotting out another Kennedy. The aristocracy grows stronger by the day.

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    7. Oops, I guess it wasn't you who mentioned Weld, Couves. Sorry about that.

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    8. No, that was me -- I think Weld would make a great Senator.

      I don't have any reason to believe Brown would be a good Governor, since he doesn't have significant management experience. But he does have a shot at winning and I think he'd be better in an environment that has him closer to the voters.

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    9. Hey you guys, don't forget about me! With Coakley out, maybe some better Dems will have their chance.

      @Couves, the partisans in MA have nothing on the partisans in other states, but I hope the legislature doesn't change the laws yet again.

      I liked Bill Weld (mostly) but you can't tell how partisan he might have become. Brown wasn't the "independent" he made himself out to be, maybe Weld won't be either.

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  3. I have to say that the whole NRA "press conference" struck me as being very similar to the whole epistemological closure phenomenon we see with the GOP. I expected just boiler plate "we are all shocked and saddened" "we are all working to make America safer" stuff. Instead we got this rather strange rant about how bad the media is how the real victims in this are gun owners. It seemed like they don't even know how to relate to the rest of the country that doesn't go to gun shows. Reminds me of the whole Paul Ryan "Obama's foreign policy is unraveling right before our eyes" thing from this year.

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    1. long walk - I'm pretty sure the NRA wasn't trying to appeal to you. I saw the press conference as primarily a political act, meant to rally the people who already agree with them. If there's voters in the middle who are turned off, then perhaps it will backfire.

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    2. Well yeah, it probably wasn't directed at me. But still this was a train wreck. The very first things out of his mouth were about how the media is awful because they will do such and such. That right there, the media is already evil before they've done anything, is classic GOP closure. Also his bizzare tone which went between the world of self righteous demands and vague requests, was verified. I don't know, we'll see.

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    3. Talking mostly to people who agree with you, or preaching to the choir, is not necessarily a bad strategy when folks who don't agree with you aren't listening and are liable to keep relatively quiet. But when 26 dead bodies are getting pulled out of an elementary school, then it might be time to use your "inside voice" and at least pretend to be a rational, sane adult who believes that a calm rational statement might persuade other rational people.

      Now, you may think there are no calm rational people on the gun control side (but at least we're not always threatening to shoot people who disagree with us or overthrow a tyrannical US government!). If so, and if the irrational outnumber you, then you may wind up with irrational gun control, particularly if you forsake any attempt to engage them in good faith.

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    4. long walk - most members of the press are either actively working against the NRA, or they simply don't know enough about guns to not pass along misinformation.

      Geoff - Some of what was said was silly, but not all of it. Sadly, armed security is not considered strange to the average American and for some frightened parents it may sound like a great idea.

      Who's threatening to shoot gun control advocates?

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    5. Well, when it comes to security the issues are not either/or. One could easily be in favor of policemen at schools AND gun control. As a Dutch friend of mine once pointed out "The Dutch people actually believe in guns. They also believe the legal right to use them belongs to the police and the army."

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    6. Anastasios, is there a nation state that doesn't "believe in guns"?

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    7. I suppose not, Couves. But people do often talk about believing in guns or not believing in them, believing in force or not. My friend was making the same point as you. All societies, never mind states, "believe" in guns and force. The question is who has the right to use such methods. In this particular instance, there are all kinds of positions one can take. One family of positions would hold that armed security at schools is not a bad idea AND that it should be supplemented by measures to control the general availability of firearms. Just being for armed security does not necessarily make one against gun control, and just being for gun control does not mean you think armed security is a bad idea. For the record, I think the idea of armed teachers is absurd, nor am I for having police guards at schools. And I think American gun law is insane and morally reprehensible. But I don't think all of those positions necessarily go together. Indeed, it might open up routes for compromise, for instance I could support policemen at schools (but not armed teachers) as part of a security policy that also includes vigorous action against the gun culture (my preferred approach being a public health tack to place ever greater expense and inconvenience on would-be gun owners and gun dealers). But that is only one possible mix of approaches.

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    8. "The question is who has the right to use such methods."

      That's the question the second Amendment tries to answer.

      Do you think it's "insane and morally reprehensible" to allow alcohol to be served at bars, restaurants and parties? More people are killed each year in alcohol-related car accidents than in firearm-related homicides.

      You could probably save more lives by banning public consumption of alcohol than by the Assault Weapons Ban.

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    9. Couves - you're right about my phrasing; it was wrong. I should have said "threaten to shoot people who they think pose a threat to them."

      And we agree that part (I'd say a large part) of what he said was the opposite of constructive, but other suggestions may have merit. My point was that acting sane and rational and appealing to people on a sane and rational level increases the probability that the sane suggestions might get some traction.

      As to your 11:54 post, I think you're probably right that banning alcohol would save more lives than banning assault weapons. If we thought about it for a while we could probably come up with a lot of other things that would save more lives, like banning automobiles or hiring a million more cops.

      But, what if an assault weapon ban could be crafted that would save a mere ten lives, or maybe a hundred, or merely reduce the homicide rate by 4%? That wouldn't be nearly as good as banning cars or alcohol, but it would save lives. At what cost? A lot of gun owners say that assault weapons do not serve a purpose - not self-defense, not hunting. It's certainly the case that America was a country for a long time before weapons capable of spraying hundreds of bullets in rapid succession, and people didn't suffer for lack of firepower. Hell, they wiped out 9 billion passenger pigeons and almost all the bison!

      So, even if it wouldn't save nearly as many lives as some impractical thing that's never going to happen, would even a modest reduction in homicides be worth getting rid of assault weapons? Or is the diminution of freedom just too much to bear?

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    10. That is true. And of course Prohibition failed, which is one reason that I think we should approach the gun culture as an unfortunate and serious public health problem, much as we approach drunk driving and smoking, and as we probably should approach soft drug use. Simply because something is reprehensible and insane does not mean it can easily be eliminated - but that also is no excuse for throwing up one's hands. Nor would everyone agree on exactly what the purpose of the Second Amendment is. But that is the purpose of the political process - including the judicial process, as I could easily foresee taking a very restrictive view of the Second Amendment becoming a litmus test for Democratic judges, and the opposite for the GOP. Not surprising, really. We have been around this with all sorts of issues, including abortion, which after all some find, to use my own words, reprehensible and insane, and others see as a constitutionally protected personal right. So we may as well settle in for a hundred year war. Pity, really. But there you have it.

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    11. Anastasios, you wouldn't have to revisit prohibition, just ban drinking at restaurants, bars and parties -- places people generally drive to and from. I'm not saying it's a good idea, but it seems to follow the logic of gun control. The fact that it's not considered (and actually sounds kind of daft) is only proof that gun control is motivated at least as much by cultural concerns as it is by a rational desire to minimize death and suffering.

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    12. Geoff -- I think you get to the heart of the matter in the way you frame the gun control position. As you point out, we have no way of knowing how many gun deaths would be saved by an assault weapon ban. Since very few gun deaths are in the form of a mass shooting, the number would probably be small. It becomes vanishingly small when you consider that the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) that has been talked about does not take a single high-capacity magazine off the streets. Having said that, I think there is something that could be done (See my comment at: http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/12/sunday-question-for-liberals_16.html?showComment=1355731292019#c6458533763353522287)

      But I will say this in defense of “assault weapons.”

      1) Firearms are defined as “assault weapons” based on features that have no real effect on their lethality. The AR-15 rifle used in CT was completely legal, in spite of that state’s AWB.

      2) The AWB also applies to the magazine capacity of handguns. Since many handguns have magazines in the 11-18 capacity range (greater than the ten round limit), these standard capacity magazines would be made illegal. These are the most common handguns used for personal defense -- the sort your local police carries.

      3) As you note, semi-auto rifles are used in hunting. Hog hunters frequently use semi-auto rifles, sometimes even with night vision. In spite of that, this invasive species continues to expand it’s range. Michigan, where they’ve recently moved in, went so far as to slaughter domestic pigs in an attempt to stop the spread of wild ones.

      4) AR-15 rifles, in particular, are just very versatile firearms. They’re simple for gun owners to customize and even build themselves. (You don’t need to be a professional to build one from a box of parts.) It’s easy to change sites, stocks, lights, etc. Even the caliber can be changed to be larger or smaller (including pistol caliber and .22 rimfire).

      5) Assault rifles also have a valid role for personal defense. They’re easier to use than pistols or shotguns (easier to hit your target = safer). Some professionals also say that the small-but-fast .223 bullet is safer to use for home defense, because it’s more likely to break apart when it hits drywall than other bullets, which tend to be large-but-slow.

      Then there’s the firepower, which you’re unlikely to ever need (heck, let’s be honest, you’re unlikely to ever need any gun), but does have its role. Korean shop owners used assault rifles to protect their stores during the LA riots. The idea is to have something you’ll hopefully never need, but it’s also not hard to find people who have actually needed it too. A recent example: http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/crime-courts/2012-08-09/shop-owner-shoots-three-during-burglary

      6) Assault rifles are also protected by the Constitution. The Second Amendment was, in the historical context of its day, clearly about an individual right to bear arms. This can be found in both the English Bill of Rights and common law. But it was also seen as a collective right of free men to defend the polity (this is why Catholics in England couldn’t bear arms and slaves in the US were prohibited). Given their recent experience, the framers saw this right as particularly essential to ensuring the collective freedom of a republic. The “arms” being described are those which would commonly be used in a militia. Today, the arms commonly carried by our Guardsmen are assault rifles.

      So how do all these things compare against the very small number of people who might be saved from murder? I don’t know -- that’s for each person to decide. But given the facts, I don’t think it’s at all irrational to oppose a new assault weapons ban, particularly when the first one was determined to be ineffective.

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    13. Couves,

      You are right about the cultural concerns. However, that is nothing new or surprising. Politics is about many things, but one of those things is "what kind of country do I want to live in?". Therein come some of the most bitter fights. For instance, anti-slavery advocates were motivated by many concerns, including economic ones as many people saw slaves as unfair competition in the labor market. But a lot of it came down to "I don't want to live in that kind of country.". And many bitter current conflicts, including abortion and gun control, and most obviously immigration policy, are at least partly motivated by the same concerns. It is one reason that these issues are so resistant to compromise, even when on the face of it there are wide areas where compromise might be had. Ultimately it comes down to forcing people to live in a country they do not want to live in. Is it surprising that things are so bitter?

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    14. Anastasios, I agree with your analysis. The analogy with prohibition works particularly well here -- there’s a history of both progressives and conservatives trying to regulate each product, guns and alcohol, whether it's for the safety of society or to keep those blacks/immigrants in line.

      Conservatives have made their peace with firearms, but progressives continue to see them as both a menace to public safety and something used by people they have a cultural aversion to and a strong desire to control.

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    15. Couves,

      Prohibition, sure. But every other major reform movement as well, from abolition to civil rights to sanitation (many ethnic minorities saw mandatory health codes as striking directly against traditional living arrangements and child-care practices) to public education (modern home-schoolers are far from the first to grumble about cultural indoctrination). Politics is about power, and power is about forcing some groups to abandon there values and culture in favor of the values of others. Many rural conservatives feel that progressives despise them and want to dismantle their culture, and they are often correct. They also feel threatened by social and demographic shifts that are steadily eroding their relative power in American culture and politics, and they are probably correct in those forebodings as well. So these culturally charged issues, which are most social issues, will be tinged with great pain and bitterness for the next generation ore two, until some new equilibrium is reached. What that will look like, none can say, but it will be a change, and if there is anything short of physical pain that people fear more than change, I do not know what it is.

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  5. I agree with longwalk that the tone of the NRA press conference was circumstantially odd; net of the interesting 2nd Amendment debate elsewhere in this thread. Also counterproductive to their interests: there's something different about Sandy Hook that makes real action somewhat more likely than other mass shootings like Aurora, Columbine, et.al.

    Here's what's different about Sandy Hook: the victims were heartbreakingly innocent. The victims of Aurora were also "innocent", technically, but they were not innocent. Not innocent in the sense that Dave Ramsey means when he repetitively says he's "better than he deserves"; I suspect most adults, if we're honest, realize we deserve worse than we get. The same is certainly not true of a six-year old.

    This difference is easily illustrated by imagining Lanza's life in prison (if he had been apprehended) vs. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter. There's no comparison, which is reflective of the different nature of their victims.

    Which, getting back to the NRA, might have been a point to make: our hearts break at the senseless slaughter of these beautiful babies. Because, you know, our hearts do break at the senseless slaughter of those beautiful babies.

    Separate from 2nd Amendment policy, the NRA seems like a group that doesn't feel about life, and people, the way I do. If the fury of hardened prisoners at child murderers is any indication, we're pissed as hell about Sandy Hook, and something's gonna get done, and it feels as though the NRA is trying, somewhat psychotically, to stand athwart all that.

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    1. CSH, The NRA's membership expects it to use its political clout to stop gun control.

      Would you expect NARAL to support "reasonable" restrictions on abortion?

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    2. Couves, that's a fair point. To the particular, if there were somehow a public wave of third trimester, partial-birth abortions, grotesquely portrayed in the media, one might expect NARAL to echo the old "safe but rare" line (at least in public).

      But I'm not confident about that. You might be right.

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  6. Regarding armed guards as a solution, I don't imagine it would be all that difficult for Lanza to simply show up unexpectedly and shoot the guard first. Aside from that, Columbine High School had an armed and trained guard, and there was an armed police officer nearby. Both arrived at the scene while the shooting was still going on. After figuring out what was going on and who was doing it (tasks not to be minimized), both attempted to shoot the shooters but failed. Virginia Tech had 35 armed and trained police officers (including a SWAT-type team) in addition to the local police department. Officers arrived at the scene while the shooting was still going on--in fact, within three minutes of being notified--but couldn't get into the building at first because the shooter had chained the doors.

    For the political issue, however, the technical details really don't matter. The key divide is between those who assume that killers are and always will be armed and those who believe public policy can make a difference.

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    1. Scott, I was thinking a similar thing yesterday: unless you assume the best possible scenario (the guard would apprehend Lanza at the entrance, killing him as he entered the school), your best bet is that the guard, inevitably elsewhere in the school, confronts Lanza in the first classroom, killing him there.

      Assuming the world works the way the NRA describes (an assumption certainly contradicted by Columbine, as you note), then the murder of 20 students and 6 faculty in 2 classrooms might have been 10 students and 3 faculty in 1, assuming a highly effective armed guard.

      Maybe the NRA officials think that is a "solution". I can't imagine many members, when they consider the implications of what the organization recommends, would agree.

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    2. And under the best possible scenario, as aptly you describe it, you have a guard who just murdered someone walking into a school under the assumption that he was a threat, which that guy's family (and the NRA, because carrying a gun doesn't make you a threat) may dispute. (I'm reminded of "Dracula's Daughter," which begins moments after the final scene of the original "Dracula," with Van Helsing being hauled off by the police for stabbing some guy in the heart with a wooden stake.)

      But, anyhow, the gun-rights advocates will still say that 13 dead is an improvement. (Now, I'm reminded of George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove. "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. I just saying 20-30 million dead tops."--or words to that effect.)

      Maybe I'll go watch a movie.

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    3. Scott and CSH -- Let's be honest, nothing we do is going to guarantee that something like this won’t happen. But we can pursue mitigation strategies. Capacity-limits on magazines is just one of these. I don’t have a problem with armed guards and even armed teachers under limited circumstances, though each of these ideas has obvious complications costs and limitations as well.

      But there's simpler things that can be done for security. Many schools lack proper doors, locks, windows, cameras, etc... I also can't help but wonder what would have happened if that brave Principal had mace. It probably wouldn't have saved her life, but maybe those kids would still be alive. And then there's the procedure that schools follow. The one boy who survived the slaughter in his classroom ignored his teacher's instructions and did what his parents had told him to do in such a situation -- run the hell out of there.

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    4. Fair enough, I'm not opposed to mitigation strategies. Still, I wonder about the effectiveness of measures like capacity limits. They say the police in Newtown found numerous empty 30-round magazines strewn about the floor. I imagine they could have found even more numerous empty 10-round magazines.

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    5. Scott, I tend to agree. I would have liked to see the NRA call on every school to conduct a security review and every gun owner to secure his or her firearms from people who shouldn't have access.

      That would have been a reasonable response. Instead, they're trying to rally the troops by going on offense. I read the press conference as a political exercise.

      Of course, I think the NRA's detractors were prepared to laugh at whatever they said, unless it included "ok, I guess we need more gun control now."

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  7. Part of the issue, here, is that increasingly sophisticated partisan special interests prosper on the Myth of the Other Guy's Helplessness, which is a natural fit insofar as most of us think the other guy is a hopeless idiot. For our purposes, the NRA and friends tell us "good guys" need lots of weapons, because (cue Strother Martin) 'there's some people you just can't reach...'.

    Not that liberals are any better, with their tendency to diagnose 40 out of every 17 mental illnesses. Either way, the other guy is helpless and needs to be either a) shot at or b) availed of fabulous specialized mental "treatment".

    There's a story over on HuffPo about Lanza's barber, who notes that the boy would sit in the chair for 30 minutes, staring at the floor the entire time, never answering questions (which his mother would inevitably answer instead).

    Cue the liberal special interest: the boy is clearly disturbed and needs massive specialized care.

    Cue the conservative special interest: the boy is clearly disturbed and we all need lots and lots of weapons to protect ourselves from the extreme manifestations of his inherent troubles.

    Then rewind the clock forty years, before groups learned they could make hay on the back of the Myth of the Other Guy's Helplessness, and here's what everyone would say:

    Maybe that damn mother should force him to speak when he's spoken to!

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    1. Maybe the damn mother should have faced reality, and put her guns somewhere unknown and never accessible by her clearly disturbed son. Maybe all guns owners should do such safety assessments.

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    2. Finally, why isn't the NRA telling its members to do this kind of safety assessment? Because safety isn't its primary concern, but is so far down the list that it doesn't warrant much consideration.

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    3. +1 MP - I was disappointed that the NRA didn't bring that up. They've done a lot to encourage safety over the years, but I guess that takes a back seat to politics now.

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    4. True, NRA might have helped their case by being more pro-active on the safety front. However, at this point it is not surprising they are resisting that. It took many, many years and an enormous amount of pressure to bring the alcohol and tobacco lobbies around to a more pro- responsibility message, and they still have to be carefully watched to keep them from backsliding. The point above about NARAL is also well-taken. The NRA will change its tone when the NRA stakeholders feel enough pressure to think such a change is in their best interest.

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    5. Up until, I believe, the 1970s, the NRA used to advocate on behalf of gun control in the name of public safety. It's only in recent decades that they've gone so rigidly obstructionist.

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    6. Am I wrong to find it odd how the NRA is a mix of everyday members (willing to pay annual fees in order to be represented) but also the main lobbying group for the interests of gun manufacturers? This dubious synergy doesn't seem to occur around other issues (but correct me if I'm wrong): e.g. 1) NARAL isn't significantly controlled by producers of abortion equipment, 2) environmentalism issue groups for citizens are usually somewhat distinct from the green energy producer lobby.

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    7. PF, yes, having both corporate money and a (presumably) mobilizable voter base makes the NRA stand out among Washington lobbies (although I heard that NRA-backed candidates didn't do that well this year). In addition, the firearms industry has a more conventional "trade association," the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is headquartered in Newtown, CT.

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    8. The NRA is still involved in shooting safety in a major way. That hasn't changed. The change is in the move towards more political advocacy.

      Years ago, the NRA was not as much involved in politics, but then there was less need to be involved. There's also a generational change -- since the 70's, gun ownership has become less about hunting and more about self defense.

      People love to demonize the NRA, but the truth is that the organization is just representing its membership. The group had a leadership change, about 30 years ago, in which the grassroots took over the organization from the old guard (which was not looking out for the interests of people who wanted firearms to defend themselves and their families).

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