President Barack Obama has never proposed mass-scale gun confiscation during his time in office. Yet whenever Obama comes up with a new proposal, like his executive actions this week, gun sales spike, in part due to fears that the president is about to take away people's guns.
At a CNN town hall about guns on Thursday, Obama took on that idea head on. "It is fair to call it a conspiracy," he said. "It is a false notion that I believe is circulated for either political reasons or commercial reasons in order to prevent a coming together among people of goodwill to develop commonsense rules that would make us safer while preserving the Second Amendment."
Obama is trying to explain a complicated problem here: Why is it that most Americans support mild gun control measures, such as closing the "gun show loophole," yet these laws are never passed?
The reason is rooted in the "conspiracy" Obama is referencing, which is actually a fairly new development within the most powerful arm of the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The NRA wasn't always so extreme
The NRA was, for much of its early history, more of a sporting club than a serious political force against gun control, and even supported some gun restrictions. In 1934, NRA president Karl Frederick was quoted as saying, "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."
A 1977 revolt within the organization changed everything. As crime rose in the 1960s and '70s, calls for more gun control grew as well. NRA members worried new restrictions on guns would keep coming after the historic 1968 law — eventually ending, they feared, with the government's seizure of all firearms in America. So members mobilized, installing a hard-liner known as Harlon Carter in the leadership, forever changing the NRA into the gun lobby we know today.
This foundation story is crucial for understanding why the NRA is near-categorically opposed to the regulation of private firearms. It fears that popular and seemingly commonsense regulations, such as banning assault-style weapons or even creating a federal database of gun purchases, are not really about saving lives but are in fact a potential first step toward ending all private gun ownership in America, which the NRA views — wrongly, in the minds of some legal experts — as a violation of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
So anytime there's an attempt to impose new forms of gun control, the NRA rallies gun owners and other opponents of gun control to kill these bills. These gun owners make up a minority of the population: anywhere from 34 to 43 percent of households, depending on which survey one uses. But that population is a large and active enough constituency, particularly within the Republican base, to make many legislators fear that a poor grade from the NRA will end their careers.
As a result, conservative media and politicians take the NRA's support — especially the coveted A-to-F ratings the organization gives out — very, very seriously. Politicians will go to sometimes absurd length to show their support for gun rights. Last year, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) starred in a video, from IJ Review, in which he cooked bacon with — this is not a joke — a machine gun.
Although several campaigns have popped up over the years to try to counteract the NRA, none have come close to capturing the kind of influential hold that the organization has. Some of the groups — such as StopTheNRA.com, in part funded by Democratic donor Ken Lerer — didn't even last a few years.
Kristin Goss, author of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, said this might be changing. She argued that newer gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions are much more organized, are better funded, and have more grassroots support than gun control groups have had in her 20 years covering this issue. As a result, Democrats at the state and federal level seem much more willing to discuss gun control.
But supporters of gun control face a huge obstacle: far more passionate opponents. As Republican strategist Grover Norquist said in 2000, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their 'control' position?" Probably not, Norquist suggested, "but for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."
What's behind that passion? Goss, who's also a political scientist at Duke University, suggested that it's a sense of tangible loss — gun owners feel like the government is going to take their guns and rights. In comparison, gun control advocates are motivated by more abstract notions of reducing gun violence — although, Goss noted, the victims of mass shootings and their families have begun putting a face on these policies by engaging more actively in advocacy work, which could make the gun control movement feel more relatable.
There is an exception at the state level, where legislatures have passed laws imposing (and relaxing) restrictions on guns. In 2014, for instance, Washington state and Oregon passed laws ensuring all guns have to go through background checks, including those sold between individuals. "There's a lot more going on than Congress," Goss said. "In blue states, gun laws are getting stricter. And in red states, in some cases, the gun laws are getting looser."
Still, the NRA's influence and its army of supporters push many of America's legislators, including at the federal level, away from gun control measures. So little gets done.