- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

The National Rifle Association is planning a major voter-outreach program for the 2016 presidential election, buoyed by its success in targeted elections last year and hoping to capitalize on Americans’ growing belief that gun ownership will make them safer as fear of crime rises, its chief lobbyist says.

“As people learn more, and take a more serious approach toward their own security and the failure of the criminal justice system, they see these rare but horrific crimes. Whether you support or hate the Second Amendment, everyone wants something done,” Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, told The Washington Times.

“We now have carry laws across the country — not all great laws. But the doomsday prediction — that more guns are going to be the end of the world as we know it, more people will be shooting firearms and doing crazy things — simply hasn’t materialized. Law-abiding people have the right to their own protection,” he said in an interview.

For the first time in more than two decades, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership by a margin of 52 percent to 46 percent, according to a Pew Research poll.

This finding comes after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut and some other high-profile rampages that the White House used to argue for a full-court press for gun control despite statistically lower crime rates overall.

Still, the majority of Americans don’t feel safe, and that perception has only grown during President Obama’s term of office, according to the polling.

“In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership — not gun control — makes people safer,” Pew wrote in an April 17 report.

Support for gun control has had the sharpest decline among whites who see crime on the rise: Just 37 percent of those who now say crime is rising say they favor stricter gun control, compared with 78 percent who said the same in 1990, the Pew report said.

Pew’s poll also shows support for the NRA is increasing — the gun rights lobby had its second-largest national convention last month, and its membership has reached 5 million.

The NRA proved its muscle in the 2014 election cycle, helping to rally a decisive victory for gun rights supporters, especially in hotly contested races like the U.S. House seat in Arizona once held by shooting victim and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords.

There are more than 100 million gun owners in America who identify with different political parties, but all of whom feel their freedom is under attack, Mr. Cox said.

“What gun control groups fail to realize is gun owners aren’t just a loyal voting bloc they’re a very savvy one, and they don’t like to be lied to,” said Mr. Cox. “There’s this realization — gun owners know their rights are under attack — but there’s a bigger issue out there: that people are feeling suffocated, whether its businesses being stifled from regulation, Obamacare or being told how much soda we can drink. There’s been an overreach into our personal freedom. It’s a serious issue, and people are taking notice.”

The NRA was successful in more than 90 percent of the races in which it played, demonstrating that it can run television ads and support candidates in urban districts without collateral damage, Mr. Cox said.

Although Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), a gun control group founded by Mrs. Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, poured $2 million in trying to re-elect her former district director, Ron Barber, to her former Arizona congressional seat, NRA-backed candidate Martha McSally won the race in a runoff in what was one of the most hotly contested races of the election cycle.

The NRA rallied grass-roots support for Mrs. McSally’s campaign and ran direct mail on Second Amendment rights. NRA internal exit poll data from that race shows 37 percent of Mrs. McSally’s votes came from people who said they were in direct opposition to Mr. Barber and Mr. Obama’s gun control policies. And toward the end of the race, ARS — fearing backlash — pulled its gun control television spots from the air.

“On the ground during the campaign, it definitely felt like those anti-Second Amendment ads certainty didn’t hurt us and did more to gin up Second Amendment supporters than anything,” said Patrick Ptak, communications director for Rep. McSally.

ARS declined comment to The Times.

That support for the Second Amendment was an advantage that held equally true in Colorado in 2014.

Exit polling showed that 51 percent of those who voted in the Senate race there said they supported the goals and objectives of the NRA. Thirty-eight percent said they voted for Republican and NRA-backed Cory Gardner over Mark Udall “to show opposition to the Obama-Mark Udall gun-control agenda.”

“With these results we are able to demonstratively show what we’ve said all along — that the NRA, come election season, is not a niche group or niche message, it’s not 4 [percent] or 5 percent of the electorate, it goes to 40 percent to 60 percent of all voters,” Mr. Cox said.

Still, gun control groups are also optimistic.

Michael Bloomberg donated $50 million of his personal fortune to get his group Everytown for Gun Safety combating the NRA last year. And Giffords-affiliated gun control groups raised and spent about $27 million in the midterm cycle trying to influence elections, according to federal elections data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

That compares to the $28 million the NRA decided to spend on 2014 elections, according to the same data set.

“In candidate races, more than 85 percent of our endorsed candidates won election,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for Everytown in an email statement to The Times. “In governor races in states that passed background check legislation since Newtown, candidates who support gun safety were victorious.”

One clear victory for Everytown was in Washington state, where the background check ballot initiative passed with 60 percent of the vote.

“Our supporters took the fight to keep our children safe from gun violence to a new grass-roots level — and the election results show that while the gun lobby can bully politicians, they can’t bully the American people at the voting booth,” Ms. Soto Lamb said.

The NRA is disappointed in losing that ballot initiative but simply couldn’t match the resources Everytown poured into the state’s ballot initiative, Mr. Cox said.

“That was a unique state being led by billionaires being able to raise $12 [million] to $15 million to mislead people on the facts,” Mr. Cox said. “We were outspent overwhelmingly. Our money comes from $5 and $10 dollar donations from our members.”

According to Washington state federal election disclosures, the NRA spent $485,000 in Washington. In an October 2014 press release, Everytown said it spent more than $4 million to support the state’s ballot initiative, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pitching in another $1 million.

Now the NRA is headed into its next battle, a presidential cycle in which voter turnout and the stakes are much higher.

“[The] 2016 [election] is going to be much different. It’s a national election year [and] we know it’s going to be challenging and expensive,” Mr. Cox said. “We’re constantly working to improve. We have the best grass-roots organization in the country and continue to build it out. Take the presidential race aside, our No. 1 priority is to protect our friends against attack, No. 2 is to defeat our opponents, and No. 3 is to go after open seat opportunities.

“Next year more of our friends will be under attack. It’s going to be a challenging election cycle,” Mr. Cox said. “We’re going to face the most ruthless and dishonest but disciplined presidential campaign in Hillary Clinton. That’s a reality that anyone who cares about freedom needs to focus on and be prepared.”

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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