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The Globe and Mail

Five reasons why gun control has been disarmed

The long arm of the Bush-era Supreme Court

During the most recent Bush administration, the Supreme Court largely sided with gun proponents in its interpretation of the Second Amendment:

"A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed," it reads.

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The gun-control lobby has always argued the second part of the amendment refers to the "well-regulated militia," meaning the Constitution protects the right for the state to arm militias.

The pro-gun lobby claims the second half of the amendment applies to "the people" referring to individuals, rather than an organized militia.

Under President George W. Bush, the Department of Justice endorsed the latter interpretation, dealing a blow to the gun-control lobby. Then, in 2008, the Supreme Court dealt another blow, with a landmark ruling.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court found that individuals have a constitutional right to own guns for self-defense. Two years later, the court found its earlier ruling also applied to state and local governments.

"There's two ways of looking at it," says Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. "In reality, these decisions meant that people have the right to have a hand gun in their home in Washington, D.C. It was later found to pertain to all states. The perception, however, has been it was an expansion across the board of all gun rights. That perception, for some people is still there, and that's not helping us."

Fading Brady

With the decline of Jim Brady, the gun control lobby is losing what was once considered its most effective weapon.

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan's press secretary was among those shot during John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt on the president in 1981. He came to embody the risks of America's gun-loving culture.

Mr. Brady's injury left him in a wheelchair with slurred speech. His ordeal, however, which played out on national television, lent the movement enough momentum to culminate in the passage of the landmark "Brady Bill" in 1993, which legislated federal background checks on anyone purchasing firearms.

Mr. Brady's crusade carried the risks of being cast as a one-man movement. His wife, Sarah, acted as spokeswoman for The Brady Campaign when her husband's health was too frail. His personal story also resonates less effectively with a new generation of Americans too young to recall the attempt on Mr. Reagan's life.

Today, Mr. Brady is 70 years old with failing eyesight. Semi-retired, he spends most of his days with Sarah, a cancer survivor, at their beachside home in Delaware.

"Since the shooting, every day has been a trial for Jim, I mean, every day he has to deal with the simple issues of getting out of bed and dealing with his medical conditions," said Chad Ramsey, federal legislative director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"I know when they heard about the latest shooting, Sarah and Jim were both stunned and they said that anything they could do during this time they would, and that includes making calls to members of congress," he said.

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"But the fact is, they're just not able to do things as often as they would like."

You can't recruit with victims

The National Rifle Association boasts nearly 4 million members - a figure that has more than tripled since 1976.

By contrast, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, America's largest umbrella group of 48 "gun-violence prevention organizations" claims 25,000 individual members.

Executive director Josh Horwitz says "millions" of Americans are exposed to his coalition's message.

The NRA's biggest structural advantage over his coalition, Mr. Horwitz concedes, is recruitment.

"The NRA does have a lot of grassroots support. They can recruit at gun hops and gun shows every weekend. The reality is, we don't have a 'victim's show' to go to," he says.

"Meanwhile, victims who are the people who should be the most effective advocates are so damaged from the violence - if they survive it - it's difficult to get them to talk."

NRA membership benefits include:

* An official ID card.

* Your choice of subscription to American Rifleman, American Hunter or America's 1st Freedom.

* $5,000 of accidental death and dismemberment coverage for annual members.

* $10,000 of accidental death and dismemberment coverage for life members.

*$2,500 of ArmsCar coverage, which covers insured firearms, air guns, bows and arrows against theft, accidental loss and damage.

Freedom always comes first

After a string of catastrophic school shootings, the National Rifle Association was searching for a way to tweak its message as the 2000 election drew near.

"They had to reframe this issue, which really belongs on the militia fringe, to appeal to the politicians like Newt Gingrich," says Mr. Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

So they called in the pros.

The NRA hired the Mercury Group, a high-powered consulting company that describes itself on its website as "masters at melding news with drama, politics with theatre, and public affairs with popular buzz to make your message sing and your story sell."

Their client list includes the Navajo Nation, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and the Air Force Memorial Foundation.

Mercury Group worked with the NRA to identify key states to target with their new campaign: "Vote Freedom First."

The campaign featured radio and television ads, billboards, bumper stickers and "other collateral materials." Huge "Freedom First" rallies were organized in dozens of cities in swing states leading up to election day.

Afterward, the NRA and Mercury Group declared victory, citing an 85 per cent success rate in state and local elections of sympathetic candidates, a pro-NRA majority seated in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and "a pro-NRA President in the White House."

The Freedom First campaign was so effective, it persists today.

The "Freedom Polo" shirt sells on the NRA's website for $39.95 U.S. A red-and-blue-striped "Freedom Tie" costs $24.95.

"The pro-gun lobby has done a very good job in convincing people that if they give up their guns they're going to lose something very valuable, their personal freedom," says Ms. Bonavia of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort.

"They've been able to equate the possession of a handgun in a public place with the long-standing tradition of freedom."

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