WASHINGTON: The latest US massacre, in which a lone man rained gunfire from a Las Vegas hotel window onto a country music concert below, killing 58 people, has again raised the issue of the country’s lax gun regulation.
But a week later, it is clear that the laws that allowed the now-dead shooter Stephen Paddock to amass 47 guns including military-style assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, will not change.
And one key reason is the unquestionable power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
It has only five million members, but stirs trepidation in any politician it says threatens Americans’ gun rights.
With its normal allies, Republicans, controlling the White House and Congress, there is little chance of a move to significantly tighten restrictions on guns, despite the carnage last Sunday in Las Vegas.
Fundamental rights under attack
Founded nearly a century and a half ago to promote marksmanship, the Washington-based NRA in the 1970s turned to defending the broadest view of the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment promise of a right “to keep and bear arms.”
That was a reaction to the 1968 Gun Control Act, which required firearms dealers to be licensed and placed restrictions on various types of guns.
The group’s political influence grew slowly.
But after a ban on new automatic weapons in 1986, a short-lived prohibition on assault rifles in 1994 and mandated background checks for some gun buyers, it established itself as the vanguard in protecting what many Americans view as their fundamental rights.
Since the 1990s, the NRA has been able to deliver a powerful punch against local and national politicians it labels a threat to those rights, contributing to the defeat of many moderate candidates.
The secret to its power is that supporters vote on one issue — gun rights — while opponents are not nearly so focused.
“They are good in exciting their constituency,” with the result “an intense minority winning out over an apathetic majority,” said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science and elections expert at the University of California-San Diego.
Financially powerful, the NRA does not lavish money on political candidates.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, it only donated $21 million to candidates over the past 27 years, mostly in state and local elections. In Washington, it spends about $3 million each year on lobbyists.
But over the past 13 years, in 30 states that report the data, the NRA spent $115 million to influence public opinion and political races indirectly by placing its own pro-gun advertisements on television and online, and helping other third parties get its message out.
“Elected officials generally know what is dangerous for them to do,” said Harry Wilson, a professor at Roanoke College and author of three books on the politics of gun rights.
But Wilson, an NRA member himself, says the size of the bloc is also greatly underestimated. It has broad support among non-gun owners and civil libertarians, he argues.
“Gun owners are generally supportive of civil rights over all. It’s a privacy thing. Some of them simply don’t trust the government at all,” he said.
“This idea that everybody really wants gun control, and it’s only the NRA that is opposing it, is simply a myth.”
Wilson pointed to polls showing the NRA is favored more than President Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
“The long-term trend in the country has been for gun rights,” he added.
For Jacobson, the NRA’s stance has now become “the more orthodox position of Republicans,” and its followers very much match Trump’s base.
That means there is little chance gun control advocates can make any gains after the Las Vegas horror.
The group’s muscle was on display after the Las Vegas massacre.
Paddock had 12 legal “bump stocks” on his guns that allowed to fire about as rapidly as automatic weapons, unloading hundreds of shots per minute. That made his assault far deadlier than it would have been without the devices.
As soon as the use of bump stocks was known, Democrats called for their ban. But President Donald Trump was hesitant to take a stand, as were many Republicans in Congress, until the NRA itself suggested it would support new restrictions.
In a deft statement, it blamed Democratic former president Barack Obama for bump stocks.
It offered Republican lawmakers who fear gun rights activists an out, by proposing that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and not Congress, handle a ban. And in the same breath, it audaciously called to loosen restrictions on people carrying guns in public.
“Unfortunately, the first response from some politicians has been to call for more gun control,” the group’s chief executive Wayne La Pierre and chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a statement.
“In an increasingly dangerous world, the NRA remains focused on our mission: strengthening Americans’ Second Amendment freedom to defend themselves, their families and their communities.”