NRA shies from all-out fight on Sotomayor

The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, has come out against Sonia Sotomayor but conservatives question whether it will flex all of its muscle to oppose the Supreme Court nominee.
 
Leaders of the gun owners’ rights group issued a strong statement against Sotomayor Friday but they have declined to say how much a vote for the nominee would affect lawmakers’ ratings.
 
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“It’s an important vote and will count,” said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman. But the NRA has not given an indication of how much weight the vote would carry on its scorecard or whether it would be considered a vital “key vote.”
 
By contrast, Gun Owners of America, a smaller yet less compromising gun rights group — it bills itself “Washington’s only no-compromise gun lobby” — has informed senators in no uncertain terms that voting for Sotomayor will impact their scorecards significantly.
 
“We’ve been telling members of the Senate that this will be rated very heavily against them if they vote for her,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “We’ve got to hold people accountable.”
 
Pratt said the NRA may not want go all out against Sotomayor because her confirmation seems assured.
 
At least three Senate Republicans have said they would vote for her: Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Mel Martinez (Fla.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine). Democrats control 60 seats in the Senate and leading Republicans have promised not to filibuster Sotomayor’s nomination.
 
“I don’t think they want to be seen as having lost a battle,” Pratt said of the NRA.
 
“Their philosophy seems to be nothing ventured, nothing lost,” he said. “Normally, we can-do Americans say ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’
 
“We would prefer they look at it as a fight we may lose but not the end of the war.”
 
If the NRA were to announce that a vote for Sotomayor would substantially affect lawmakers’ ratings, it would put significant pressure on Republicans and red-state Democrats to vote against her, or at least force them to do a lot of explaining to constituents.
 
Many lawmakers cherish high ratings by the NRA, which has 4 million dues-paying members and a much larger sphere of influence.  If those ratings took a sudden dip, lawmakers would inevitably have to explain themselves on gun rights — a potent issue — come re-election time.
 
But the group seems reluctant to take a hard stand on a confirmation that would hurt long-time allies who have supported them time and again on legislative issues.
 
Historically, the NRA has tended to stay away from judicial confirmation fights. Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to rally the group behind its judicial nominees but to little avail.
 
Curt Levey, executive director of Committee for Justice, a conservative group that opposes Sotomayor, said the NRA should re-evaluate its approach to the judiciary.
 
“I don’t know that they’ve ever scored a vote on a judicial nominee before and I can see why they might be hesitant,” said Levey. “But now that the Second Amendment is [being shaped] in the courts more than in the legislatures they need to start scoring judicial confirmation votes.”
 
Sotomayor’s most controversial rulings on gun rights came in two cases. In Maloney v. Cuomo, she ruled the Second Amendment did not apply to state and local governments.  In United States v. Sanchez-Villar, she ruled that gun ownership is not a fundamental right.
 
Democrats have discovered over the past decade the power of gun rights as a political and have virtually conceded the battle. The gun-rights lobby showed its strength again earlier this year when Republicans, despite small minorities in the Senate and House, forced a provision onto credit card legislation allowing visitors to carry loaded and concealed weapons to national parks.
 
The power of the NRA and Sotomayor’s record on guns gave hope to conservative activists opposed to her. But the NRA was slow to join the fight. The group initially took a wait-and-see approach and only announced its opposition  after Sotomayor testified before the Judiciary panel.
 
“Unfortunately, Judge Sotomayor’s judicial record and testimony clearly demonstrate a hostile view of the Second Amendment and the fundamental right of self-defense guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution,” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, and Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, in a July 17 statement.
 
Levey, of the Committee for Justice, predicted the NRA could sway centrist Democrats against Sotomayor but that it has diminished its potential influence by waiting so long to take a stand.
 
“People on the Hill say that it’s the one group that red state Democrats are wary of,” he said. “The one thing that could really be a game changer, to get some Democrats vote against her, would be the involvement of the NRA.
 
“Had they gotten involved a few weeks earlier it would have made more of an impact.”