The NRA doesn't deserve my sympathy, or yours

Usually when a senator suffers a big public defeat, he slinks off to lick his wounds. He rarely retwists the arms that didn't bend his way. Colleagues don't like to be seen switching. Were they horribly mistaken the first time? Don't know what they believe?

But Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, thinks he can get five senators to change their votes on a bill, killed last month, that would expand background checks for gun buyers. If so, his co-sponsor, Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, is still on board — and Majority Leader Harry Reid says he'll bring the bill for a vote.

Manchin has a few things going for him. First, some of the senators who voted against the bill have seen their favorability ratings plummet. New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, her approval rating down 15 percentage points, was angrily confronted at a town-hall meeting by the daughter of a woman killed last year at the massacre in Newtown, Conn. By contrast, John McCain of Arizona, who broke with his fellow Republicans to support Manchin-Toomey, got a bouquet of roses.

Manchin has one big thing against him, however: The National Rifle Association is more fired up than ever.

Crazy Talk

The group's members danced on the carcass of the failed bill at their annual meeting last week in Houston. Rather than mourn the loss of children's lives in the Newtown attack, they mourned the beating they've taken in its wake.

"The national media and their billionaire supporters attack us, ridicule us and, worst of all, blame us for the acts of violent criminals and madmen," said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. Members roared in approval as Sarah Palin accused grieving parents of allowing themselves to be used as props in exchange for a ride on Air Force One. Glenn Beck, who should be at the top of any "Do Not Sell To" list, shouted tearfully that the "freedom of all mankind is at stake" should any gun owner be the least bit inconvenienced.

These people make NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the man who asked how many Bostonians wished they had a gun at last month's marathon, look almost reasonable.

Has the gulf between the NRA and the general public ever been wider? There was a day when the NRA supported background checks. Now it has essentially killed a modest effort to close a loophole that would keep criminals and the mentally ill from buying weapons at gun shows and on the Internet.

To all of which, Manchin says: Don't confuse the NRA with gun owners. A tiny percentage of the NRA's membership was in Houston. Most members, says Manchin, with his A rating from the organization, can be worked with. Those in favor of gun safety just have to find a way to talk to those in the 34 percent of U.S. households with a gun — to feel their pain, understand their hopes and fears, respect their way of life. Then we can all get along.

I admire Manchin's persistence and sincerity. I want him to succeed. But he puts a heavy burden on the 90 percent who favor background checks to understand the 10 percent who don't. I don't need to be gay to understand gay rights. Why do I need to own a gun to understand gun rights?

At any rate, my understanding wouldn't affect my view of the Manchin-Toomey bill. Family members would still be able to sell to one another, over the Thanksgiving turkey or over the Internet, as they prefer. There would be no regulation of noncommercial sales. The bill would prohibit a national registry and impose a 15-year felony sentence for any public official who tries to start one.

Why is it up to those of us who don't want felons, wife-beaters or terrorists to have guns, to understand gun owners? They and their rural-hunting-sporting-suspicious culture must always be respected. Don't they have a corresponding obligation to understand my side, much less the specifics of the Manchin-Toomey bill?

Reasonable Conversation

As if to prove his approach can work, Manchin scored a small victory this week. Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said he could support Manchin-Toomey if he were confident that it wouldn't hamper online sales of guns among friends and family in rural areas. You can see the deal here: Manchin will offer reassurances so Flake can change his vote, even though noncommercial sales are already excluded from regulation in the bill. Flake's approval rating may rise above the level of "pond scum," and love and understanding will fill the air.

The reason for this asymmetry in understanding in the first place is the NRA. Senators rush to accommodate the organization because it is very effective at mobilizing its membership, and its money, against politicians it doesn't like. Money could become less asymmetric in 2014, when funding from Mayors Against Illegal Guns is deployed. (The group's co-chairman is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.) Pick off a couple of people voting against Manchin-Toomey, and much of Congress will understand there's a new sheriff in town.

Right now, Manchin should be able to woo a few senators who were appalled by the NRA's convention. How could people cheer while parents of slain six-year-olds are accused of being puppets manipulated by Washington elites? Those parents are shells of their former selves, yet they are driven to honor their dead children by trying to bring some sense to our gun culture. That, I understand.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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