If you’re wondering why many Republicans are reluctant to support any legislative measure that mentions the word “gun,” consider the case of Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia.
This conservative Republican lawmaker and self-described “lifelong NRA member” recently cosponsored a bill along with three colleagues (two Democrats and a fellow Republican) aimed at outlawing gun trafficking. This narrow measure specifically seeks to end “straw purchasing,” the act of providing firearms to those who are unable to legally purchase the weapons themselves.
The bill is perhaps as benign as any gun-related measure Congress has ever considered. It has nothing to do with background checks. It does not ban any certain type of weapon or limit magazine clips. It has the overwhelming support of law-enforcement groups, who want federal penalties for people who knowingly funnel weapons to felons. Even the National Rifle Association, which has taken a hard-line stance against each item on President Obama’s gun-control agenda, declined to oppose this legislation.
But on March 1, staffers in Rigell’s D.C. office were stunned to learn that a television ad was running in their district accusing the lawmaker of promoting Obama’s gun-control push. Rigell, who is serving his second term in Congress, made it clear when introducing the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act that he opposes the entirety of Obama’s gun-control platform, even the push for universal background checks. Further, Rigell was careful to brand his bill as “law-enforcement” legislation, not to be confused with another “gun-control” bill.
That distinction did not matter to the National Association for Gun Rights, an organization that has positioned itself to the right of the NRA and takes an uncompromising position against anything that could be construed as weakening the Second Amendment. The group’s leader, Dudley Brown, recently accused the NRA of “signaling preemptive surrender” to Obama, and he promised to take the fight to anyone who advocated any kind of gun-related legislation.
Rigell soon became the group’s first target. On Feb. 28, NAGR launched its offensive in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, spending $13,000 on TV ads and $7,400 on radio spots attacking him. These ads ran through March 12. NAGR also sent direct-mail fliers to his constituents. The ads, which accuse Rigell of working to “pass Obama’s gun control,” also resurrect points designed to call into question the conservative character of the legislator—such as his campaign donation to Obama in 2008, and his vote last year against holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
These negative ads were harshly effective; they were also riddled with factual inaccuracies. For one, the ads claim that Rigell “has teamed up with anti-gun Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy” of New York to pass the anti-trafficking measure, when in fact, the bill’s cosponsor is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. (This mix-up is repeated throughout NAGR’s anti-Rigell blitz, and Brown sounded surprised when it was pointed out to him.)Elsewhere, the ads say the bipartisan measure will create “a federal registration system,” which it does not. Finally, the ads also assert that Rigell is working hand-in-hand with Obama to push a gun-control agenda, even morphing his face into the president’s at the conclusion of the TV spot.
Unfortunately for Rigell, timing is everything, and these ads aired the same week he was in the news for flying aboard Air Force One with Obama, who visited a shipyard in his district to discuss the effects of sequestration. Whether the timing of the NAGR attack was intentional remains unclear, but there’s no question that linking Rigell to Obama’s gun-control agenda just days after their high-profile shared plane ride was effective in raising conservative doubts about Rigell’s commitment to their cause. They were s
o effective, in fact, that the lawmaker’s office was flooded with phone calls from constituents immediately after the ad aired. Rigell is now spending his own money to air a radio ad back home—on the same channel that ran the NAGR spots—directly rebutting the attacks.
Even if the damage is contained in Rigell’s Virginia district and these attacks do not derail his anti-trafficking effort, the effect on other members of Congress could be chilling. Republican lawmakers are already loath to consider anything that could land them in hot water with the all-powerful NRA; now they’ve got to worry about a new group that takes harder lines and is looser with the facts.
Rigell has said he’s not concerned about the blowback affecting his next campaign, but there’s no question that negative ads work—and some voters who saw this spot will be skeptical of Rigell’s conservative bona fides. The NAGR attack ad states plainly that “Scott Rigell doesn’t sound like a Republican.”
Ironically, the consequence of such a commercial—especially in a light-red district like Rigell’s—is that pro-gun groups may have endangered a Republican standing against Obama’s gun-control agenda.
This article appears in the March 13, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Gun-Rights Group Targets Pro-Gun GOP Lawmaker.