To listen to the head of the National Rifle Association tell it, the battle over gun control is as dire as ever despite signs legislation in Congress is on the ropes.
During a fired up speech Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre offered no sign that the organization feels confident it has successfully blocked new regulations. He practically begged conference attendees to remain vigilant against coming gun laws, including background checks.
“You’re here because you want to make your own difference,” LaPierre said. “Take your own stand. Plant your feet firmly in the foundation of freedom. Don’t be swayed by the winds of political insanity.”
LaPierre offered a complete pitch to CPAC goers, stressing the NRA’s dedication to safety, lampooning liberals for having bizarre ideas about self-defense and framing the gun debate as another classic scenario of liberal elites versus the rest of the country. “And no matter what the elitists who scorn you say, let them be damned!” he told an excited crowd.
LaPierre’s speech comes at a critical time for the gun issue, with progress on gun legislation more uncertain than at any time since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Democrats have sent a bill on universal background checks to the Senate but it lacks crucial Republican support. Legislation to ban assault weapons is considered dead on arrival.
LaPierre took particular aim at background check legislation Friday, laying out his case for why expanding the system is not just ineffective but dangerous.
“That’s what they’re after, the names of good, decent people all over this great country who happen to own a firearm, to go into a federal database for federal registration of every lawful gun owner in America,” LaPierre said.
“In the end, there are only two reasons for government to create that federal registry of gun owners: to tax them or to take them,” LaPierre said.
In the weeks and months since the school massacre in Newtown, LaPierre has waged a very public campaign against new gun control legislation, including opposing universal background checks — a proposal the NRA supported a decade years ago.
At a Senate hearing in January, LaPierre opposed expanding background checks by arguing it was a futile effort. “And when it comes to background checks, let’s be honest, background checks will never be universal because criminals will never submit to them,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But over the next month, LaPierre took a more extreme approach, arguing — as he did at CPAC — that universal background checks were part of an elaborate Democratic agenda to confiscate Americans’ guns.
If LaPierre’s speech indicates that the battle in Congress is not yet won, checking in with CPAC attendees themselves shows that the NRA’s message on background checks has not been successful either. Though conference-goers responded enthusiastically to LaPierre’s speech, in interviews with TPM, they seemed unafraid of the doomsday scenarios that LaPierre has been selling them. In fact, they generally supported expanding background checks.
Gloria Johnson, 56, indicated that she would support a bill that expanded background checks. “I support having a background check,” said Johnson, a member of a Republican women’s group from Charles County, Md.
“I think it’s important,” Jena Henderson, 40, said of background checks. Henderson, who works at the evangelical Liberty University, noted the need to screen for mental illness.
It was particularly true among the conference’s younger attendees.
“I support background checks, absolutely,” said Vladimir Plotkin, 21, who organized a trip for the College Republicans at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. Plotkin, who wore a “Stand with Rand” sticker on his lapel and said he identified with the libertarian wing of the party, and that he was opposed to gun bans. But on background checks, “I don’t have any problem with that,” he said.
Noelle Konieczny, 18, is a Rick Santorum fan and a student at the evangelical Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. “I’m definitely for background checks,” she said.
“I think we need stricter background checks,” said Daniel Rivera, 21, a member of the College Republicans at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Of course, there were some who had reservations about expanding background checks. Dave Ryan, who once ran an ill-fated campaign for Congress in his home state of Michigan, indicated he was “not at all” on board with background checks.
When TPM raised the issue of guns, Ryan pulled open the right side of his sports jacket.
“This is the first place I’ve gone in a long time without my gun,” he said. “I feel naked.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.