As talk of gun-control legislation grows in the wake of the Newtown shootings, arguably the most powerful voice in the debate – the National Rifle Association – will outline Friday how it will seek to influence the debate and its outcome.
But any expectation that the Newtown shootings is a watershed moment that will result in big concessions from the country’s most powerful firearms organization, which has served as a lobby promoting the rights of gun owners and effectively blocking most major gun-control initiatives for nearly 20 years, is misplaced.
“The NRA making gun-control concessions is as unlikely as the Pope giving up his faith,” said Scott Melzer, a sociologist at Michigan’s Albion College and author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.
The power of the NRA “ lies with their core members and their base,” he added, “and so making concessions would undermine their influence [and would mean] not standing strong on their beliefs.”
The killing of 20 schoolchildren and seven adults, including the mother of the shooter, has catapulted gun control to the top of the national agenda. Gun-control advocates are pushing for a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazine clips and closing loopholes in the background-checking system.
Earlier this week, the NRA, which has four million members and was formed in 1871 in New York state, broke its silence on the mass shooting and said it would hold a major news conference Friday, adding – a week after the “horrific and senseless murders” in Newtown – it “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
The Newtown shootings are a “game-changer,” said Richard Feldman, a former gun lobbyist who served in the NRA leadership in the 1980s and early 1990s. But he also said he would be “shocked” if the group agreed to reinstate a Clinton-era ban on semi-automatic assault weapons that expired in 2004.
“If it was on some magazine round – a ban – I probably wouldn’t be shocked,” said Mr. Feldman, author of Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. But he said he does not believe a ban on assault weapons like the one used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza in the Newtown shootings will be effective.
“There are good people and there are evil people. There are not good guns or bad guns,” he said.
Everyone wants to keep guns out of the hands of “deranged shooters,” Mr. Feldman said. “How do we do that without unduly infringing on the rights [of the vast majority] who aren’t going to misuse a gun in a homicidal crazed attack this year?”
Mr. Feldman said he is still “wrestling” with the issue of whether he supports limiting high-capacity magazines.
The Newtown shooter reportedly fired more than 100 rounds using high-capacity clips and carried hundreds more in ammunition. Gun-control advocates argue that limiting high-capacity magazines to 10 rounds would reduce the extent of casualties during a mass shooting by restricting the number of bullets the shooter could fire before having to change magazine clips.
Mr. Feldman, who remains an NRA member, estimated that there are more than 100 million high-capacity magazine clips already in the hands of U.S. civilians. They would not likely be covered under any new law – which would ban the manufacture of only new high-capacity clips. “The impact, if any, on the ability of people to buy [high-capacity clips] would take 25 to 75 years to show itself,” he said, although over time the clips would become rarer and harder for people to find.
A ban would not stop a “deranged shooter,” he added, from buying two separate guns to increase magazine-clip capacity to carry out a mass shooting.
Deep skepticism among gun-control advocates and observers continues over any role the NRA chooses to play in the national discussion following the Newtown massacre.
“I expect that that the NRA [on Friday] is going to offer their usual ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ kinds of arguments,” Prof. Melzer said. “And they’ll offer support for related proposals such as arming teachers and expanding conceal carry [of weapons] in public places like schools,” he added.
The NRA might support efforts to strengthen mental-health services “because that takes the focus off of guns. But what they absolutely won’t do is support reinstating the federal assault-weapons ban or any other gun-control proposals,” Prof. Melzer said.
Public support for stricter gun control has surged in the wake of the Newtown shootings. According to a CBS News poll, 57 per cent now support stricter measures, up 18 percentage points from the spring and now at a 10-year high.
“There are many gun owners and NRA members who are open to various gun-control measures – expanding licensing, perhaps limiting capacity of gun magazines. But individually they can’t compete with the most die-hard [NRA] members and they’re not going to take action on that,” Prof. Melzer said.
“The reason why the NRA doesn’t compromise is because they view compromise as giving up rights and freedoms and undermining the culture they support of rugged individualism and their ideas of American freedoms,” he added.