Mass shootings test power of an NRA in turmoil

Mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead over the weekend are raising new calls for background checks on gun sales, testing the power of a National Rifle Association plagued by months of internal turmoil.  

Gun reformers on Capitol Hill, long frustrated by the gun lobby’s power to block tougher laws, believe they have a new opportunity given the NRA’s perceived weakened state.

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The NRA is “not as powerful” as it was, Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingGOP lawmakers blast Trump's Syria decision as 'grave mistake,' 'disaster in the making' Here are the Democrats who aren't co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban Hotel industry mounts attack on Airbnb with House bill MORE (R-N.Y.), who co-authored a bipartisan background checks bill with Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonHere are the Democrats who aren't co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban House panel advances anti-gun violence legislation Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), said in a phone interview with The Hill on Monday.

A former House Homeland Security Committee chairman, King argued that if President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE tried to push gun control legislation through Congress now, the NRA “won’t be as effective” in stopping him.

“The president, who is a great dealmaker, knows how to go for people’s weak points, and if the NRA ever had a weak point, it’s right now,” King said. “They are weakened. And all of us, including the president, should take advantage of that.”

Julián Castro, a Democratic presidential hopeful and former mayor of San Antonio, offered a similar assessment.

“If you compare now to 10 years ago, there are a lot more people in politics that are standing up to the NRA,” he told MSNBC on Monday. “Their grip on American politicians has loosened a lot.”

The NRA has faced months of internal conflict.

In April, Oliver NorthOliver Laurence NorthNew York sues NRA's former ad agency over subpoena NRA paid for flights for chief executive's relatives: report Trump called NRA chief to tell him universal background checks are off the table: report MORE was pushed out as NRA president after voicing concerns over lavish spending by the group’s top brass, including longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre. In June, the group shuttered NRATV after just three years of production and fired its longtime advertiser Ackerman McQueen, while Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist and legislative guru, resigned amid accusations he’d tried to topple LaPierre. The woes continued last week when three NRA board members stepped down, citing their “shattered” faith in the group’s leadership.

The NRA also has come under fire for its ties to Maria ButinaMaria ButinaSenate Democrats request IRS investigation of NRA Senate Democrats say top NRA officials knew about Kremlin ties State Department's top arms control official leaving MORE, a Russian gun rights activist who was sentenced in April to 18 months in prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, even as she was attempting to influence U.S. policy through the NRA and other conservative political channels.

NRA officials did not respond Monday to multiple emails seeking comment. 

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci calls Trump a 'traitor' to the US Scaramucci: Trump is 'gone' and 'done' Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' MORE, Trump’s former communications director, said the string of NRA scandals has hobbled the group and sapped its influence, creating new chances for gun reformers to move long-idle bills through Congress — if Trump gets behind them.

“The NRA is basically an emperor without clothing right now,” Scaramucci told CNN on Monday. “The president could use his strength with the Republican Party and get something done on these gun control laws."

Whether the NRA has really lost as much power as its critics say is debatable.

The group has been able to stop big gun control measures in their tracks on Capitol Hill, even after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting. The NRA continues to have influence, particularly with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

It’s also far from clear that Trump is ready to challenge the NRA.

The president has expressed a willingness in the past to expand background checks for firearm purchases, and early Monday he floated the idea of marrying such legislation to an immigration reform bill. Yet hours later, in remarks from the White House, he made no mention of the concept.

As he spoke of the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump blamed the spate of violence on the internet and video games while urging an overhaul of mental health laws, seeming to rattle off talking points long espoused by the NRA.

Trump didn’t mention the King-Thompson bill strengthening background checks for firearms purchases. The bill passed the House in February, 240-190, over loud protests from the NRA and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Mattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria MORE (R-Ky.), who’s vowed to send it to the legislative graveyard.

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger — not the gun,” Trump said, a phrase that bounced around social media on Monday.   

The NRA’s lobbying arm issued a brief statement saying it “welcomes” Trump’s prescription for tackling “the root causes” of gun-related violence. 

“It has been the NRA’s long-standing position that those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms and should be admitted for treatment,” the statement reads.

Trump has a long and inconsistent record on the topic of gun reform.

In 2000, as he was exploring a run at the White House, he published a book titled “The America We Deserve,” in which he endorsed an assault weapons ban and took GOP leaders to task for coddling the NRA. 

Since launching his successful 2016 campaign, however, Trump has shifted gears, promoting himself as a fierce gun rights advocate and opposing virtually any new restrictions on Second Amendment rights. As president in 2017, he spoke before the NRA’s annual convention — the first sitting president to do so since former President Reagan — and vowed he’d never infringe on the right to bear arms. 

Still, Trump last year pressed his Justice Department to adopt a ban on bump stocks, devices that essentially convert semiautomatic firearms into automatic weapons. And the president spoke Monday with Sens. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe Fallout from Kavanaugh confirmation felt in Washington one year later MORE (D-W.Va.), who said afterward that Trump “showed a willingness to work with us” on expanding background checks. The pair had championed the issue in 2013, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but their proposal was defeated by a GOP filibuster. 

Thompson voiced some doubt that Trump would ultimately support tougher background checks — “The president has backtracked on this in the past,” he said Monday by phone — but noted the “waning” power of the NRA, largely due to the rise of well-funded gun reform groups that have emerged in recent years to challenge the powerful gun lobby.

“If the NRA wants to stop its plunge into obscurity, they should get involved with those groups and try to do everything possible to make our communities safer,” he said.

Alex Gangitano contributed.