Sen. Harry Reid took nearly $5,000 in campaign cash from the National Rifle Association the last time he ran for election — which made his vicious attack on the gun group Tuesday striking.
After watching his gun control plans founder the night before in competing votes on the Senate floor, the lawmaker from Nevada blamed the group for the loss and said the NRA doesn’t mind suspected terrorists getting their hands on guns, doesn’t care about Americans’ constitutional rights and worries only about its own bottom line.
“Here is a little secret for my Republican colleagues: The NRA doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about your constituents. It doesn’t care about the constitutional rights of its followers. The NRA and its leadership care about two things: making money for gun manufacturers and making money for the NRA,” Mr. Reid said as he kicked off the legislative session.
His frustration boiled over after he and fellow Democrats were unable to win passage of a proposal to ban those on secret FBI watch lists from buying guns. Even several Democrats defected to vote against the plan, joining Republicans who said the proposal ensnared too many Americans and denied them their Second Amendment rights without due process.
Mr. Reid and fellow Democratic leaders lashed out by accusing Republicans of arming Islamic State terrorists.
A compromise emerged Tuesday, led by Sen. Susan M. Collins and eight other senators from both sides of the aisle, which would cut the number of lists that can be used to refuse a gun purchase and create a specific path for those denied a weapon to challenge this in court.
“All of us are united in our desire to getting something significant done on this vital issue,” said Ms. Collins, Maine Republican.
Mr. Reid said he didn’t question her motives — though he did question the rest of the Republican Party, accusing them of caving to the NRA at every turn.
It was a stark turnaround for a lawmaker who used to be accused by fellow Democrats of holding too close ties with the gun rights group. He voted for NRA priorities, accepted the group’s endorsement in his 2004 race and sought it in 2010. He didn’t get the endorsement, but the NRA’s action fund did contribute $4,950 to his campaign — part of the more than $10,000 in donations Mr. Reid has collected from the group during his time in Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
During that 2010 campaign Mr. Reid also appeared at a gun range with NRA Executive Vice President Wayne La Pierre, who showered praise on the senator. The NRA also wrote an effusive note saying it owed any of its legislative victories over the previous years to Mr. Reid’s role as the leader of Senate Democrats.
On Tuesday, NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker signaled that the good feelings are long over.
“Sen. Reid lies and exploits victims of horrific terrorist attacks because he can’t win the argument based on facts,” she said.
She said nobody wants terrorists to have access to firearms and that Congress should act — though within the confines of the Constitution, which enshrines the right to keep and bear arms. She said that cannot be deprived without due process of law.
“Harry Reid exemplifies what the American people hate about politicians, and Nevadans will be better served when they have a senator who will work to keep them safe from terrorism and who respects the Constitution they swore to uphold,” Ms. Baker said.
Mr. Reid’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times on whether he would return the NRA’s money.
In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Reid said the NRA has changed. He said in the wake of the 1998 Columbine school shooting, Mr. LaPierre expressed support for universal background checks, including for transactions at gun shows, but now opposes that.
Political analysts in Nevada say Mr. Reid has been drifting left on issues for years, including same-sex marriage and immigration, because of his role as Senate Democratic leader and because of changes back home.
“When he was first elected to Congress, the state was white, rural-oriented and conservative. Now it is the third most urbanized state in the country, and it will be majority-minority by decade’s end,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Those constituencies are the Democratic base, and they have become more vocal and more liberal, and he has listened.”
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Mr. Reid, said when it comes to guns, the senator has been shifting for years.
“He’s come to realize that despite the fact that many of his constituents are opposed to gun control, something’s got to give, because he’s sick and tired of being briefed on all of these massacres,” said Mr. Manley, who is director of the communications practice at QGA Public Affairs.
Mr. Reid announced last year he would not run for re-election, but Mr. Manley said that had nothing to do with the senator’s evolution. Indeed, Mr. Reid had changed his rhetoric several years ago, even before he made his decision not to run again.
Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Mr. Reid’s attack on the NRA was likely born in part out of despair at Monday’s votes.
“I think that was just total frustration by individuals in the Senate [of] ‘we can’t do anything?’” the professor said. “You have a mass shooting like Sandy Hook, nothing happens. You have Orlando; nothing happens. At least this time, ‘Wow, they even took a vote.’”
Ms. Collins hopes there will be at least one more vote — on her new compromise.
She said her plan would limit the people potentially banned from purchasing guns to those on the no-fly list and the heightened screening list. Only about 2,700 American citizens and legal residents are on those lists.
Ms. Collins acknowledged there isn’t probable cause to arrest those folks on terrorism charges, which some conservatives said means they are denied their Second Amendment rights. But the senator said her plan strikes a balance and allows those denied purchases to challenge their listing in a federal court.