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The NRA's Lock On The Gun Control Debate

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It's been just over a week since moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., were mowed down in a hail of bullets. There have been expressions of sorrow from the nation's political leaders, but no attempts at rewriting laws to head off yet another massacre in the commons.

Election-year politics may be one explanation; another may be the sway a powerful interest group holds over Congress.

This Conversation Didn't Happen

Earlier this week, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette joined three other Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol to make a plea.

"We don't believe that the Second Amendment guarantees somebody the right to walk into a movie theater with a semiautomatic weapon and 100-round ammo magazine and shoot 71 people," she said. "We don't believe that, and we believe that we need to have a national conversation."

The Denver-based Democrat hoped that conversation would begin on Capitol Hill, but there's virtually no chance that talk might lead to action. Thursday, GOP House Speaker John Boehner was asked whether new laws were needed to prevent another gun slaughter.

"No. I think that what's appropriate at this point is to look at all the laws that we already have on the books to make sure that they're working as they were intended to work," he responded.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was also giving a thumbs down.

"With the schedule we have, we're not going to get into a debate on gun control," he said.

A Hold On Congress

"The silence is almost deafening," New Jersey's Sen. Frank Lautenberg says. He blames the 4 million-member National Rifle Association for stifling congressional action on guns. "We cannot let the NRA stop us from commonsense reforms anymore."

Gun-control advocates say the NRA's power cannot be overestimated.

"I believe the NRA has as much sway on Capitol Hill as any lobbying group in the country," says Mike Castle, a former Republican congressman from Delaware. "They've done a very effective job of convincing people that, whether it's true or not ... they have the power to completely limit their futures in elected office if they don't cooperate."

The NRA has been weighing in on an ongoing fight between Republicans and Attorney General Eric Holder, regarding a gun-tracing operation known as "Fast and Furious."

"Did America's top prosecutor commit perjury before Congress?" an NRA ad asks. "Call the president, tell him to fire Eric Holder."

When the House moved late last month to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress, the NRA announced the vote would count in its ratings of lawmakers. Seventeen Democrats joined all but two of the House Republicans in approving the contempt citation.

"My hat's off to those Democrats who bucked their party, bucked their president and put truth and justice over politics," NRA legislative director Chris Cox said after the vote.

Perceived Power Is Still Power

Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz has an A rating with the NRA. He's one of the Democrats who voted to hold the attorney general in contempt. Did he fear the NRA might work against his re-election bid this fall had he voted differently?

"I can't say whether they would've or not, but again, I would have to assume that that very well could've happened," he says.

But those who've studied the NRA's role in unseating vulnerable incumbents say the group's power has been vastly overestimated.

"People are hard-pressed to find more than a handful of members of Congress who have ever lost their seat because of the NRA or because of a gun vote," says Mark Glaze, who directs the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "But the NRA has spent a lot of money and a lot of years building up that very reputation, and a lot of Democrats have bought into it."

House Democrat Gerry Connolly says he's "not intimidated by anybody." The NRA's headquarters are in his Northern Virginia district. Nonetheless, his advocacy of stricter gun laws has helped him, he says. Still, Connolly understands how many colleagues bend to a reality of politics.

"That which is perceived is also real," he says, "so, the power exercised here certainly by the NRA is considerable."

The NRA declined to comment for this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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