Until recently, Debra Maggart considered the National Rifle Association an ally. As chairwoman of the Republican caucus in the Tennessee House of Representatives, she was a lifetime N.R.A. member and steadfastly supported its agenda, even voting for a bill that allowed guns in bars.
How much more pro-Second Amendment can you be when you allow guns in a place thats serving tequila? she asked.
But when she and other Tennessee Republicans decided earlier this year not to move forward with an N.R.A. bill that would have allowed people to keep firearms locked in their cars in parking lots, Ms. Maggart became an object lesson in how the organization deploys its political power.
Upset that the bill, which the N.R.A. called the Safe Commute Act, had stalled, the group began working to unseat Ms. Maggart, the only member of the House leadership with a primary opponent. Billboards with her picture next to President Obamas went up in her district, along with radio ads, newspaper ads and mailings. The N.R.A. and the other groups that opposed her in the primary spent around $155,000, she estimated. It would hardly be enough to register in many political races these days, but it was more than enough to beat Ms. Maggart and draw notice in the State Capitol.
They said I was shredding the Constitution, I was putting your family in danger, I was for gun control, I like Barack Obama, Ms. Maggart said.
Even when the N.R.A. is silent as its Web site and Twitter feed remained Monday, after the second-deadliest school shooting in United States history it wields one of the biggest sticks in politics: A $300 million budget, millions of members around the country and virtually unmatched ferocity in advancing its political and legislative interests.
Over the years, the N.R.A. has deployed armies of lobbyists around the country to knock back efforts to regulate guns and expand owners ability to carry concealed weapons in schools, parks, bars and churches. It has formed close partnerships with gun makers and business organizations around the country, working to protect manufacturers from liability and introduce model bills in state legislatures.
The group spent millions of dollars on political ads this year and, since the beginning of 2011, has spent 10 times more on lobbying than every gun control group combined. It claims majorities of lawmakers in both houses of Congress under the pro-Second Amendment banner. When Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York introduced a measure last year to ban high-capacity magazines used in Tucson by the gunman who shot her colleague, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in the head more than 130 Democrats signed on as co-sponsors. Not a single Republican would.
Yet the crucible of Newtown, some opponents argue, may provide the N.R.A. with the first genuine test of its political power in over a decade.
Having already won their most important priority Supreme Court recognition of an individual constitutional right to bear arms gun rights groups are increasingly fighting on terrain where they have less support, including pushing bills at the state and local level to carry concealed weapons in virtually any public setting. The N.R.A. continues to fight aggressively to dismantle existing law enforcement gun databases and to defeat efforts to apply background checks to more gun purchasers, measures that typically have solid public support.
In the post-Citizens United world, where checks from a handful of billionaires can rival the fund-raising of an entire presidential campaign, the N.R.A.s treasury gives it less clout than before. The groups $17 million in outside spending in 2012 was a small fraction of the total spent by the big outside groups. Moreover, some opponents believe the N.R.A.s ever-tighter relationships with Republican officials and an electorate that evermore comprises suburban and urban voters who are female and nonwhite, give it less leverage over Democrats, even in red states.
On Monday, two pro-gun-rights Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia, said they would consider supporting new measures to limit guns. Both have A ratings from the N.R.A.
But any such measures would face an uphill battle. In 2009, the N.R.A. failed to muster enough votes in the Senate to pass an amendment allowing anyone granted a concealed-weapons permit in any state to carry their gun in any other state. Gun control groups hailed it as the N.R.A.s first defeat in a floor vote in years but 58 senators voted for the amendment.
Over the years the N.R.A. has perfected its strategy for responding to mass shootings: Lie low at first, then slow-roll any legislative push for a response.
After the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, for example, an effort to close the so-called gun-show loophole, requiring unlicensed dealers at gun shows to run background checks, ultimately died in conference after being stalled for months.
After the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress did manage to pass a modest measure that was designed to provide money to states to improve the federal background check system. But the N.R.A. secured a broad concession in the legislation, which pushed states to allow people with histories of mental illness to petition to have their gun rights restored.
Gun control proponents say that perception of the N.R.A.s vast political clout largely dates to the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans seized control of the House and Senate after passage of an assault weapons ban under President Clinton. That image was further enhanced in the 2000 election, when the N.R.A. claimed credit for helping elect George W. Bush to the White House. But later studies of those elections have tempered these assessments of the N.R.A.s decisiveness.
In 2012, the groups $14 million effort to rally voters against President Obama the N.R.A.s most important political priority failed. In Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, gun control advocates have a public face with a significant bully pulpit and the financial wherewithal to back it up. Mr. Bloomberg spent $10 million nationally on political advertising in 2012, hoping to boost centrist candidates and those favoring gay rights and gun control. One notable success: A $3.3 million campaign by Mr. Bloombergs super PAC, Independence USA, helped defeat Representative Joe Baca of California, an N.R.A. favorite. Perhaps tellingly, the ads attacked Mr. Baca over water pollution, not guns.
I put $600 million of my own money into trying to stop the tobacco companies from getting kids to smoke and convincing adults that its not in their health, Mr. Bloomberg said in an NBC interview on Sunday. Thats one issue. Who knows with this?
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