How America's gun lobby took the Republican Party hostage

JOHN KEHOE
Last updated 08:33 07/10/2017
REUTERS

Democrats rally on the steps of the US Capitol to urge for gun control legislation in wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

TV hosts call for gun control

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Americans own almost 300 million guns - close to one for each person. But the ownership rate has fallen to 30 per cent, with many gun owners owning hoards of weapons.
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Debra Maggart, a proud gun owner and NRA life member whose family's business sold firearms, had her political career destroyed in the conservative state of Tennessee by the gun lobby group.
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A sign advertising a gun show on the Las Vegas Strip, in front of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
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People hold candles during a memorial service for Charleston Hartfield, an off-duty police officer who was killed during the shooting in Las Vegas.

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The massacre of at least 58 people in Las Vegas is unlikely to galvanise US lawmakers to significantly tighten gun laws.

The story of former Republican politician Debra Maggart's battle against the powerful National Rifle Association shows why.

Maggart, a proud gun owner and NRA life member whose family's business sold firearms, had her political career destroyed in the conservative state of Tennessee by the gun lobby group.

The NRA controls Republican politicians and Republicans currently control Congress, the White House and most state legislatures.

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As a senior member in the Tennessee state House, Maggart helped pass 21 pieces of gun legislation between 2008 and 2012 that the NRA supported.

The NRA had graded her A+ for her legislative voting record and she'd even held political fundraisers at a skeet-shooting range.

When she proposed amending a new bill that would allow gun permit holders to carry a firearm on anyone's property, the NRA came after her. Her amendment was intended to protect the property owner's rights in the event of an injury.

Suddenly, the NRA backed a female retired Air Force officer to depose Maggart in the Republican Party primary election.

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PEDDLED FALSEHOOD

Maggart's image was splashed across five giant billboards next to Democratic President Barack Obama and she was portrayed as "soft" on the Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms.

The NRA funded full-page newspaper advertisements and radio commercials denouncing her. The website "DefeatMaggart.com" appeared. An army of NRA doorknockers peddled the falsehood that she was against guns.

Maggart estimates the NRA spent around NZ$280,000 campaigning against her.

"It was a full assault, so I lost," Maggart says in an interview with AFR Weekend.

"They destroyed my reputation in my hometown and destroyed my political career. They taught everyone a valuable lesson. Don't vote against the NRA because they'll spend whatever it takes to lie about you and throw you out of office."

Most Republican politicians toe the line of the NRA, and the gun lobby was a ferocious supporter of Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Maggart says the NRA needs to have live issues to fight in order to survive.

"They need a reason to exist and an issue on the table for people to join and raise money. It's not really the money they give ... It's how they spend money to defeat you."

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Maggart actually supported the NRA principle that firearm licence holders should be able to carry their guns on to another person's property.

She simply wanted to include legal immunity for landowners in case a person was injured by a gun on their property, a principle she argued was in line with property rights usually staunchly defended by Republicans. She delayed the bill and sent it for further study over summer recess, upsetting the NRA.

After the Las Vegas slaughter this week, some Republicans are signalling they will "consider" restrictions on so-called "bump stocks".

The device was used by the shooter, Stephen Paddock, to effectively turn a semi-automatic weapon into a more potent automatic weapon. Fully automatic rifles are illegal.

The NRA on Friday said the devices should be "subject to additional regulations", while President Trump's spokeswoman signalled the White House was open to discussing changes.

Yet the NRA went on to criticise politicians for advocating more gun control since the Las Vegas mass murder and reiterated its call to make it easier for gun owners to carry their weapons across state borders to "defend themselves and their families".

"Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks," the NRA said.

Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who has been fighting for tougher gun laws since 20 primary school students and six teachers were fatally shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, says: "The NRA has managed to make NRA support a test of conservative credentials."

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Congress couldn't pass universal background check legislation or weapons restrictions after the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012.

There was the same stagnation after massacres at an Orlando nightclub, Charleston church and San Bernardino workplace in recent years.

That's despite about 90 per cent of Americans supporting universal background checks for people trying to acquire a firearm, according to opinion polls.

The NRA opposes such checks. So do Republicans in Congress, pointing to the country's history and culture of guns, enshrined in the constitution.

Maggart, who still owns a shotgun and has a handgun licence, says the NRA instils fear in gun owners about the government confiscating their firearms.

"They want to create a market for gun manufacturers," she says. "The way people want more guns is by the NRA spreading the message that the government wants to take guns off you."

The share prices of gun companies rallied on Monday after the Las Vegas massacre.

Some 15,079 people in the US died from guns and 30,614 were injured in 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The death figures exclude suicides, which make up about two-thirds of all gun deaths.

The NRA and Republican Party base has a disproportionate influence over firearm policy.

Some 54 per cent of Americans support stricter gun laws, but only 27 per cent of Republicans do, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll in June, soon after Republican politicians were shot at at a baseball field.

POLITICAL MISTAKE

Nearly 300 million guns are owned by Americans, almost one for each person. But the ownership rate has fallen to 30 per cent, with many gun owners owning hoards of weapons.

Just 3 per cent of American adults own half of the nation's firearms, according to the results of a Harvard-Northeastern poll of 4000 gun owners.

The NRA staunchly opposes restrictions on semi-automatic weapons, such as the ban former Australian prime minister John Howard implemented in Australia in 1996.

Maggart, a Republican, argues Democrats make the political mistake by talking about "gun control".

"That makes the Second Amendment people lose their minds," she says. "What would be better to do would be to say, 'can't we figure out some common sense legislation' such as on bump stocks?"

That would be a modest first step, but probably as far as a Republican government would be prepared to go.

- AFR

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