After Sandy Hook shootings, NRA faces a defining moment

All eyes will be on the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday as it addresses the public for the first time since a lone gunman murdered 27 people — including 20 6- and 7-year-olds — in Newtown, Conn. 

Friday’s press conference will serve as the beginning of a media campaign by the nation’s top gun lobby, which has been largely quiet since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre shocked the country and touched off a nationwide debate on gun violence. 

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The NRA initially shut down its social media sites and withheld comment on Sandy Hook until Tuesday, when the group issued a brief statement offering condolences to the victims and vowing to make “meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” 

As the second wave of the media blitz, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, is scheduled to appear Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

Whatever the NRA says is likely to influence the political rhetoric on Capitol Hill, where it is clear members from both parties have been shaken by Sandy Hook. 

The enormity of the crime — the murder of young children in their school in the midst of the holiday season — has launched President Obama to the forefront of the push for tougher gun laws for the first time in his White House tenure, while prompting House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to ask his conference for “a discussion” about preventing gun violence.

Vice President Biden held the first meeting of the White House’s gun violence working group on Thursday, just a day after Obama created the panel. Biden convened law enforcement officials and Cabinet secretaries for a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Still, Republicans — who traditionally oppose any gun reforms not backed by the NRA — are treading carefully ahead of the group’s Friday announcement. 

Boehner’s call for a discussion initially came only in a closed-door meeting with his troops; a number of rank-and-file members say it’s too early to talk about gun reform with the victims of the Newtown shooting still being buried; and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over weapons issues, stopped responding to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday, directing them instead to his press office. 

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said Thursday that the influence of the NRA over Congress is overblown, arguing that the group’s position in upcoming weeks “will affect some people but [won’t] be the determining factor” as Congress debates a response — if any — to the Newtown killings. 

Still, the NRA is a lobbying juggernaut that’s shown its brawn in fight after fight over gun reform on Capitol Hill in recent years. Indeed, since the assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, Congress has not enacted any significant restrictions on firearms, despite continuous calls from gun reformers, particularly in the wake of a recent spate of mass shootings that’s included an assassination attempt on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

The only major gun reform law enacted in response to one of those shootings — a 2008 law designed to improve background checks on gun buyers following the Virginia Tech massacre — passed only with the NRA’s stamp of approval. It passed Congress unanimously.

Several Democrats predicted GOP leaders would take their marching orders from the NRA on a post-Sandy Hook response.

“They will be influenced by the NRA, period,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), whose nephew, a college student, was fatally shot in Norfolk, Va., last year. “And the longer it takes to have that discussion and the longer the debate goes on, the less likely it is that we will see any meaningful gun-control legislation come forth.”

The Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, released figures this week that could help explain the NRA’s influence over legislation on Capitol Hill. Sunlight found that 47 percent of the lawmakers who will make up the House in the next Congress — and 42 percent of incoming senators — received campaign cash from the NRA in the last election cycle. 

House Democrats are using the massacre as a rallying cry to push a number of gun reforms that have languished in Congress — under the leadership of both parties — for years. And they’re moving full steam ahead.

Senate Democrats who in the past have sided with the NRA — including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — have stated a willingness to discuss new restrictions since Sandy Hook. 

So has Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), perhaps the most pro-gun Democrat in the Senate, who is famous for using the cap-and-trade global-warming bill for target practice. 

Manchin earlier this week said he didn’t know of anyone who needed an assault rifle to go hunting — words that caught Washington’s attention, given the senator’s A rating with the NRA. 

But Manchin later in the week did a radio interview where he said he was “so proud of the NRA” for its willingness to take part in a discussion of guns.

Biden on Thursday said the group would work to find “a comprehensive way in which to respond to the mass murder of our children that we saw in Connecticut,” and said he felt it was important to kick off the effort with a “frank” discussion among those who saw the aftermath of gun violence on a daily basis.

“You have a much more holistic view about how to deal with violence on our streets and in our country,” Biden said.

The vice president said he would also call on the law enforcement officials to help in a legislative push against “everything from cop-killer bullets to type of weapons that should be off the street,” adding there was “no reason” why an updated assault-weapons ban could not pass Congress.

Biden and the dozen local law enforcement officials in attendance were joined by Attorney General Eric Holder, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, along with top White House aides.

Whatever the outcome, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the Newtown massacre has changed the politics of gun reform on Capitol Hill.

“We haven’t talked about gun control in a lot of years around here and it’s because Republicans, by and large, are pleased with where things are and the Democrats are afraid to do it,” LaTourette said. “So I do think it’s constructive that we’re going to have a national discussion. And we’ll see where it goes.”