Here's the Only Thing That Matters About the NRA's Stance on a Gun Bill

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 10 2013 2:44 PM

Here's the Only Thing That Matters About the NRA's Stance on a Gun Bill

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Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speak to the press about background checks for gun purchases, in the U.S. Capitol building April 10, 2013 in Washington DC.

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Shortly after 11 a.m., my inbox rattled with the arrival of an article marked "Buzzfeed Scoop: NRA staying neutral on gun control compromise." The story, by Ruby Cramer, described an NRA that was staying out of the Manchin-Toomey fight -- a breakthrough if true.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The National Rifle Association has been in talks with both Senators, but remains neutral on the deal, according to Manchin's office. "The NRA has not said either way," said Katie Longo, Manchin's press secretary. "The Senators have been talking to the NRA, but they're still neutral."

It's probably important to explain what this news implied. The NRA, like many political organizations, awards "report cards" to politicians based on their votes. Certain votes are "key-voted" -- the NRA announces that somesuch-or-another-thing is a "key vote" -- and these votes are "scored" against the politician. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has an "A" rating from the NRA because he's never crossed the group on a key vote.

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So whether the NRA "opposes" a bill is almost immaterial. It will factor into whether the group funds or attacks a future candidate, but if the report card isn't affected, a member basically has a free vote.

But there was no quote from the NRA in the Buzzfeed story. This is no patch on Buzzfeed. The NRA has a weird, protective, monkish media strategy, in which most queries are ignored, until they're not, and a final piece of boilerplate is issued. That happened again, eventually, as the NRA gave a statement to the generally-friendlier-to-them Free Beacon.

Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools.

Etc and etc, some words about violent gangs -- you get the point. But until we see a bill, there's a small mystery afoot. For a decade, the NRA has only endorsed bills if it's suceeded in weakening them, or adding a favorable loophole. If it succeeds at that, it might not push back on Manchin-Toomey. Until it figures out the strategy, it can hold out the key-vote threat.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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