STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Rifle Association is reopening its lines of communication on gun laws. The leading defender of gun rights fell silent after last week's massacre in a Connecticut school, didn't send out so much as a tweet for days. Now, amid calls for stronger gun control, the organization is planning a press conference this Friday, and it is, quote, "prepared to offer meaningful contributions" to the debate. The NRA remains a powerful organization, even if the recent news does not favor the NRA's cause.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Gun control advocates gathered yesterday outside the Capitol. Next of kin of shooting victims formed a procession to the microphone.
JERRI JACKSON: My name's Jerri Jackson and my son, Matt McQuinn, was 27, and he died in the Aurora shooting on July 20. In addition, he saved his girlfriend.
OVERBY: The Aurora movie theater killings this summer, where 12 died. The 32 who were killed at Virginia Tech.
UMA LOGANATHAN: My name is Uma Loganathan. My father was Professor G.V. Loganathan. He taught civil engineering at Virginia Tech and he was killed on April 16, 2007.
OVERBY: Others shootings you'd probably barely remember, if at all. And then Sandy Hook Elementary School.
ANDREI NIKITCHYUK: I am Andrei Nikitchyuk. I am father of Barry Nikitchyuk. My son miraculously survived the shooting. He was in the line of fire.
OVERBY: Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, didn't attack the NRA. He simply offered an invitation.
DAN GROSS: To anyone who loves to hunt, who owns guns for any lawful purpose, to join us in having this national conversation to make this the better nation that we need to be.
OVERBY: Gross suggested that the NRA leadership is more extreme than many of its members. But that's been a tough sell. The NRA ranks among the most effective advocacy groups in America. It reaches its members almost every way imaginable: high-quality magazines and Web TV, gun club affiliates for local bonding, and the national conventions every year, a festival of guns and those who appreciate them - the whole thing is wrapped in patriotism, as in this promotional video.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're the longest-standing civil rights organization in the U.S., proud defenders of history's patriots, protectors of the Second Amendment.
OVERBY: Nina Kasniunas, a political scientist at Goucher College in Baltimore, uses the NRA as a showcase of advocacy techniques, everything, she says, down to the swag that members get.
NINA KASNIUNAS: So when they see the T-shirt, when they see the baseball hat that says the NRA, there's kind of just like a wink and a nod - sure, you know, we're in this together. We are the NRA.
OVERBY: And it's through that slogan, that solidarity, that the NRA gets its clout. It grades lawmakers, grades them harshly. It supplies volunteers to political campaigns. And it educates its members on how to vote, using extensive mailing lists that candidates both covet and fear. All for a single issue: guns. Here's an ad from this year's campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Obama put two justices on the Supreme Court who threaten our right to self-defense. Defend freedom. Defeat Obama.
OVERBY: The NRA spent $18 million in disclosed funds. Significant money came from gun manufacturers and from Karl Rove's secretive Crossroads GPS organization. At Brigham Young University, political scientist Kelly Patterson says it is possible to give the NRA too much credit.
KELLY PATTERSON: Many of these members of Congress already came in predisposed to see the National Rifle Association's agenda a certain way and to be sympathetic towards it.
OVERBY: But it's also true that the NRA has more clout than liberal groups. Matthew Vadum is senior editor at the Capital Research Center, which tracks liberal advocacy groups. He says their core issues, like environmental regulation, usually come with economic costs.
MATTHEW VADUM: If they win, that is going to cost people money. You don't have this kind of conflict on the right when you're advancing what some people call gun rights.
OVERBY: The question now is whether the NRA's core issue comes with a new and different kind of cost. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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