Congress arrived to work Tuesday greeted by 10-foot tall letters facing the Capitol’s East Front spelling out a stark message from gun-control advocates: "YOUR COMPLACENCY KILLS US." Some Republicans have the same message for the National Rifle Association.
Cracks are emerging in the GOP’s wholesale opposition to gun control on the anniversary week of the March For Our Lives, signaling slow but steady success in the intense public campaign for stricter firearms laws—and questions about whether the NRA is doing enough to fight back.
The NRA appears to be taking heed.
As House Republicans had hoped, the group will issue a key vote against the politically dicey Violence Against Women Act over its so-called red-flag provisions, which seek to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the group objects because it believes the legislation could lead to firearm confiscations over misdemeanor domestic violence or stalking convictions.
“The NRA opposes domestic violence and all violent crime, and spends millions of dollars teaching countless Americans how not to be a victim and how to safely use firearms for self-defense,” Baker said. “It is a shame that some in the gun-control community treat the severity of domestic violence so trivially that they are willing to use it as a tool to advance a political agenda.”
The move comes after Republicans discussed enlisting backup from the NRA to give them cover to vote against the bill, in a sign that they are feeling political pressure on the issue.
Staff from the House Judiciary Committee and a handful of rank-and-file GOP member offices concerned about the VAWA bill held a conference call Monday. Staff for the individual member offices said having a key vote from the NRA would alleviate political pressure on their bosses.
A key-vote alert may dissuade Republicans from voting for the measure because of the possibility of losing percentage points on their NRA rating, a metric that the group’s supporters use to evaluate whether they should support a political candidate.
Still, an NRA key vote will play right into Democratic leaders’ hands, too, and they are sure to make the case that the influential group does not care about violence against women. Such is the political hot potato that VAWA has become.
In response to National Journal's story, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted Tuesday night: "Members have a decision to make: will they protect survivors of stalking & domestic abuse? Or are they willing to allow their convicted stalkers & abusers to have access to firearms?"
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a private meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning that he thinks Pelosi let VAWA expire to put pressure on the GOP, and he urged them to look at an alternative sponsored by Rep. Elise Stefanik, a center-right Republican from New York. That measure is a straight, one-year extension of current policy.
Yet even the key vote and the alternative bill may not be enough to prevent some defections, particularly from Republicans in moderate districts, some of whom have already cosponsored a bill that would incentivize states to enforce their own red-flag laws.
That includes Republicans like Rep. Steve Stivers, the former chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, whose Ohio district is a Democratic electoral target. He said he could see himself voting for both versions of VAWA, but added that he would like to see due-process language to make sure innocent people are not denied access to guns.
“I’m not opposed to red-flag laws, depending on how it works,” he said. “We have to do some things. From my vantage point, red-flag laws are one of the most effective ways, if they’re done with important controls because you’re talking about a right.”
Over the past year, the NRA has softened its opposition to those laws. Last year, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the NRA released a video calling on Congress to provide states with resources to enact extreme-risk-prevention orders, among other policies. Republican-sponsored bills followed. Baker denies that the group has changed its position, asserting instead that no one was introducing red flag bills that met their criteria for support.
Whereas most of the pressure used to come from the gun-rights side of the issue, Republicans have noticed a marked change recently. One House Republican from a solidly red district said he thinks the NRA has taken its foot off the gas in rebutting Democrats’ gun legislation. As an example, the member noted that during the recent debate over a Democratic gun-background-check bill, the calls to his office were evenly split for and against the bill, something he thinks would have been different if the NRA had activated its membership.
“The NRA gets blamed for being the bogeyman anytime the Left doesn’t like either a gun-control vote or a pro-Second Amendment vote, but if the NRA’s not willing to flex their muscle in times when it’s important, what’s the point?” said the congressman, speaking anonymously to discuss behind-the-scenes lobbying. “It’s important that the NRA is communicating with their members and their members are reaching out to us. That’s the real power of the NRA.”
On the other hand, the March For Our Lives kids believe that it's their efforts that are counteracting the NRA’s power, something that is only just starting to bear fruit, according to Matt Deitsch, a cofounder of the group that was responsible for the installation at the Capitol.
“We see progress in the conversation, which is really important. We see people talking about extreme-risk-protection orders. We see universal background checks. We see numerous policies being discussed, and hearings are really important,” he said. “It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for all the young people around the country organizing and bridging the gap in this conversation, but I need to see a lot more to call it a victory.”
Across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina convened a rare Republican-led hearing on gun legislation Tuesday to examine state extreme-risk-protection orders, measures that would allow for the confiscation of guns from someone deemed a safety risk.
Graham, a key ally of President Trump, said at the hearing that he does not support a federal red-flag policy but that he plans to pursue legislation to help states implement their own laws. He worked with Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on a measure last year, but it did not come to a vote.
"Nobody is going to come and take your guns," Graham said. "But at the same time, every right has limits."
Democrats, however, are hardly giving Graham kudos over the hearing.
“After Sandy Hook and after Orlando, Republicans did nothing. Republicans are finally willing to stick their toe in the water of anti-gun-violence legislation because they know that their careers depend on it, and that’s very different than it used to be,” said Connecticut's Sen. Chris Murphy, who has become a leading voice for gun-violence prevention since the Sandy Hook shooting.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story mischaracterized a conference call among GOP offices. The story has been updated to accurately reflect the topic of and participants on the call.