WASHINGTON -- It used to be that the effectiveness of a strong lobby was measured by its ability to work its will behind the scenes, without the general public seeing the footprints. But that certainly doesn't describe the National Rifle Association (NRA) this year.
The organization has been on the defensive ever since the Oklahoma City bombing and the consequent spotlight on armed militias, from which the NRA has tried to separate itself in the public mind. Stories about its finances and internal power struggles also have abounded.
At the same time, the NRA has been flexing its muscles very publicly in print and, somewhat carelessly, working in support of the Republican-led House hearings on the federal raid against the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, two years ago.
The disclosure that an NRA consultant posed as a committee investigator in soliciting information about the raid quickly brought cries of outrage from Democrats. They saw the subterfuge as confirmation that the NRA, in cahoots with the Republicans, will sink to the lowest levels to besmirch its least-favorite federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Next, it was House Speaker Newt Gingrich who focused the public spotlight on the NRA by having rather injudiciously put in writing a promise to the organization, shortly after taking over as speaker, that "no gun control legislation is going to move in committee or on the floor" while he holds that august post.
Gingrich's letter to the NRA's chief lobbyist, disclosed in the Washington Post, was surprising only in the fact that it saw the light of day. The letter's categorical promise to bar any anti-gun bills unmasked the hypocrisy of his earlier creation of a firearms task force to examine gun control legislation.
The NRA, meanwhile, presses its basic argument that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individual Americans to keep and bear arms, in spite of consistent Supreme Court and lower court rulings that the Constitution embodies the right only in the context of creating "a well-regulated militia."
Notably, the NRA is not using the Second Amendment argument in attempting to have the courts throw out the Brady law requiring local background checks for the purchase of handguns. Instead, it seeks to have the 10th Amendment on states' rights invoked, arguing that states and localities can't be compelled by the federal government to make such checks to carry out federal law.
But the Second Amendment remains the focal point in the gun-control debate, with each side citing the same Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Miller, to make its case. That decision, in 1939, concerns the arrest of two men going from Oklahoma to Kansas, charged with violating the National Firearms Act by carrying a sawed-off shotgun.
The court said it could not find that such a gun had "any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia" and hence the arrest did not violate the men's Second Amendment rights. But Stephen Holbrook, a Fairfax, Va., lawyer who has argued prominent cases defending the right to bear arms, says the Miller case focused on the firearm, not the right of the individuals to tote one.
The Supreme Court in other cases, however, has rejected the interpretation of the Second Amendment as an individual right. In 1981, it upheld lower court affirmations of the right of the village of Morton Grove, Ill., to ban handguns, turning aside NRA appeals for review.
Tom Wyld, a spokesman for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, says the NRA "is eager to go to the Supreme Court," but Handgun Control counsel Dennis Henigan says the court has already spoken in support of his group's position.
Still, the NRA and allies continue to fight all efforts at gun control as contrary to the Second Amendment. And until the gun-control lobby can do a much more persuasive job in educating the public on the limits of the Second Amendment, they will keep on doing so.