The National Rifle Association did not have a good election last fall — a mere 0.83 percent of the campaign cash it donated went to races with the outcomes it wanted — and yet the political clout of the gun lobby is accepted as veritable fact. One gun-rights group leader told The Hill that if North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan votes for gun control, "we’ll go after her with both barrels." But if the 2012 elections are any guide, the gun lobby needs more target practice.
The NRA has long blocked discussion of gun regulations with its reputation for being able to sway elections, and this has given it the power to deliver real legislative results. In 2001, with the inauguration of President George W. Bush, Fortune crowned it the most powerful interest group in all of D.C., citing a narrative that's been repeated for more than a decade:
Although city slickers might be aghast at the ascendancy of the NRA, this is a highly focused, well-financed organization. Despite high-profile school shootings and unrelenting pressure from gun-control advocates, the NRA has held gun-control legislation at bay. How? By electing its supporters to Congress and, last year, to the White House. In particular, the NRA was pivotal in defeating Al Gore in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia--all states that usually vote Democratic. If Gore had won just one of them, he would now be President.
Nothing inspires zealotry like a threat, and few people feel more threatened than gun owners, more and more of whom are finding comfort in the NRA. It has 4.3 million members, up one million since last year, and two million since 1998.
The wide belief of the NRA's power to sway elections — particularly to defeat gun control-supporting Democrats — has lead to a wave of policy victories: The NRA got Stand Your Ground laws passed in more than 20 states. When the ATF wanted to track AK-47s and AR-15s being smuggled into Mexico by requiring gun dealers to report multiple sales of those weapons in 2010, the NRA stalled the plan. "The gun issue is so incendiary and fear of the NRA so great that the ATF plan languished for months at the Justice Department," The Washington Post reported, describing its sources like political dissidents: "In the past few days, the plan has quietly gained traction at Justice. But sources told The Post they fear that if the plan becomes public, the NRA will marshal its forces to kill it."