NRA-Backed Gun Laws Have Found Success In State Legislatures Across The U.S

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 1:30 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After the massacre in Las Vegas, will legislators tighten the laws regulating gun sales and background checks? My guest, Mike Spies, says that's unlikely. He's been covering the gun lobby since 2015. Spies writes for The Trace, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering issues related to guns in America. He wrote a series called The Gunfighters, examining the National Rifle Association's influence on state policy and politics, and how over the last decade, the NRA has successfully lobbied state legislatures to roll back many gun restrictions.

This week, several prominent Republican members of the U.S. Senate and House who have in the past opposed gun restrictions said they would consider legislation banning bump stocks, a device which the shooter in Vegas used to convert a semiautomatic weapon into one that functioned as an automatic weapon. Spies says, this is the first time a bump stock has been used in a mass shooting. Because it's not a gun, it's a gun accessory, and gun accessories are not mentioned in the Second Amendment, Spies says, it's possible legislation could pass. But he's still skeptical. I spoke with Mike Spies about strategies the NRA is pursuing on the state level. We started by talking about Las Vegas.

Mike Spies, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the NRA spent millions last year to fight universal background checks in Nevada. The voters passed a universal background check ballot measure last November. It passed by a very narrow margin, but the Attorney General, Adam Laxalt, has chosen not to enforce the universal background check, saying it's unenforceable. So let's start with the universal background check. Would you describe what the ballot measure said?

MIKE SPIES: The ballot measure was asking Nevadans to vote on whether they wanted a thing called universal background checks. So as it works now, when you purchase a gun from a licensed dealer, you have to undergo a background check. But if you purchase a gun from a private seller or at a gun show, you don't. It's essentially unregulated. So the ballot measure, which called for universal background checks, would expand that system to all kinds of gun sales and transfers, of which - often, you've probably heard people talk about the gun-show loophole. That's one of the loopholes in the law. And that's what the ballot measure seeks to remedy.

GROSS: So on what grounds has the Nevada attorney general, Adam Laxalt, said that this universal background check ballot measure is unenforceable?

SPIES: It's a really good question because it's pretty unclear to me. I mean, even based on the opinion that his office issued, it was a fairly vague explanation. I don't actually think that there is a good explanation for why it's unenforceable because there are nearly a dozen states that already have universal background checks and are able to enforce them. So I don't know why it would be any different in a state like Nevada. It wouldn't be. It's not any different.

To me, it is just more a matter of ideology. I feel like I can say that because the AG had a position on this ballot measure before it was ever voted on, and that becomes very clear when you see some of the ads that the NRA was running before November. One of those ads featured Attorney General Adam Laxalt. And Laxalt talked at length about how universal background checks would essentially - doesn't really say why, but would essentially end up criminalizing or would effectively penalize law-abiding Nevadans. Though, I'm not - again, I'm not sure why it would do that. But his opinion was already fixed, and also, his allegiance to the NRA by appearing in that video was also very clear.

GROSS: So do you think that if the universal background check was actually being enforced, that it might have stopped the Vegas massacre, might've stopped the shooter, Stephen Paddock?

SPIES: Well, we know that he at least bought some weapons from a licensed dealer, and he was able to pass background checks to purchase those licensed weapons. So if he was able to do that - and there's nothing in his record that's come out so far that suggests that he would've been a prohibited purchaser - then no, the universal background checks - they wouldn't have prevented him from buying more guns.

But it's not beside the point to bring up the NRA's effort to block that measure because it just speaks to the larger way in which the NRA's able to frame the entire debate over gun ownership and gun carrying in the country. Do - you know, when you're implementing universal background checks, there's a cultural effect that occurs. I mean, good laws in general are supposed to teach people safe behavior. And it's the NRA's responsibility to fight anything that would place any restrictions on gun ownership.

GROSS: You've been focusing on the NRA's activitying (ph) and lobbying on the state level, though you're also writing about the federal level. But it seems from your writing that the NRA is actually focusing more on the state than the national level. Why is that?

SPIES: Well, the national - in terms of the - what happens with gun legislation at the national level, especially over the last decade, particularly with the start of the Obama administration, is - it's just really been total gridlock. No legislation moves in either direction, so there hasn't been a major gun bill that would expand the rights of gun owners - hasn't passed at the federal level in quite some time. But what you have seen over the last 10 years are bills that go in the other direction.

In the wake of Newtown, there was that huge effort to pass a universal background check bill or a bill that would essentially impose universal background checks. And that ultimately failed by a fairly thin margin at a moment when it seemed like there was a huge hunger or desire on behalf of many Americans to see action.

But at any rate, that's been the NRA's task federally, is just - essentially, to fight off what would be restrict - what they would consider to be a restrictive legislation. That also includes what they call - you know, legislation that was pushed last year to close the terror gap, which sought to essentially prevent anyone that was on the FBI's terror watchlist - if you are on that watchlist, you can't board an airplane. The argument was, well, if you can't board an airplane, you probably shouldn't be able to purchase a gun, either. But the NRA successfully beat that back as well.

At the state level, the map's just been exceptionally favorable to the NRA, especially since 2010, when Republicans took control of a majority of state legislatures around the country and governors offices, too. So it's the place where they're able to advance gun rights and experiment. So what you've seen over the last decade is a proliferation of legislation that has been enacted that has allowed people to carry firearms in places that they've never been able to carry before. That includes bars, churches, college campuses, day care centers, government buildings. That's ultimately at the core of their agenda, is to normalize gun carrying in as many places as possible until it just becomes as natural of a thing to see in society as any other accessory that people carry around.

GROSS: So the NRA is working for this on the state level.

SPIES: Yes. We did - or I did an analysis last year where I basically looked at every state legislator in the country and sort of wanted - I was curious how many lawmakers were not only sympathetic to the NRA's cause but also overtly expressing a willingness to do its bidding. We were able to do that analysis by focusing on the NRA's grading system. If you're an especially loyal lawmaker, then you get a grade of A, or A-minus or A-plus. And as it turned out, more than half of the lawmakers - I think it was roughly 54 or 55 percent of state lawmakers countrywide have an A-minus or better from the NRA.

And then in a more granular sense, in I think 14 states, you had legislatures in which two-thirds of the lawmakers have a grade of A-minus or better, which is to say that the NRA in 14 states have what is ultimately something that approaches or is a veto-proof majority. So even if they - there was a governor who opposed legislation in those particular states, which has happened before, they have the numbers to override any veto.

GROSS: So why do legislators care that much about getting a high grade from the NRA? Because it sounds like the grade has become more important than any money you're going to get from them.

SPIES: Well, that's true. Yeah, that's true at the state level. I mean, part of it is, state-level races are just far more inexpensive than federal ones. The thread is, if you don't have the good grade, if you're a Republican, specifically - if you don't have the good grade, then you can easily get primaried from your right flank, which is something that has happened. And the NRA will field the candidate to do that to you.

There's a really great story, actually, from 2012. A very prominent state lawmaker in Tennessee whose name was Debra Maggart for years had been one of the NRA's most stalwart allies in the state. She had an A-plus. She was a very reliable vote, and the NRA wanted to pass a piece of legislation there that ran into some obstacles from the state's business community. So Maggart ultimately decided to table the legislation. She didn't even oppose it. She actually was reflecting the will of her caucus and the idea was that once it was tabled, they would study it more. But the NRA didn't like that, so they spent less than $50,000 putting up billboards in her district essentially conflating Debra Maggart with President Obama and gun control. I mean, it completely - it's hard to, like, really get across how ludicrous it was that that was what she was being punished for but also just because she's someone that had been really, really great for them.

And then what they did was they fielded a candidate who had no political experience but who was further to the right on the political spectrum from her to run against her in the primary. With the billboards and then with also, like, just one or two really simple YouTube advertisements characterizing her as a gun grabber and in, like, a month her ratings dropped. She was someone who was very popular in her district and she wound up losing the primary. And you do that once and just a few times or every now and again and it's enough to clearly put the - to send a message.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Spies. He's been writing about the NRA since 2015. He covers the gun lobby full time. He's a reporter for The Trace, which is an independent, nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering America's gun violence crisis. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Spies He covers the NRA. He's been reporting on the gun lobby since 2015. He's a reporter for The Trace, which is an independent, nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering America's gun violence crisis. He wrote a series called The Gunfighters, examining the NRA's influence on state gun policy and politics.

So the NRA has lobbyists for every region of the United States, but Florida has a dedicated lobbyist. It has an NRA lobbyist all to itself, and you describe her as one of the most powerful people in the NRA. And because of her power, Florida has become a laboratory for generating new forms of gun protections. So the lobbyist I'm describing, her name is Marion Hammer. Describe her position in the NRA and why she's so powerful in it.

SPIES: She is just someone who's been there for an exceptionally long period of time, and they pay her a lot of money to do her work in Florida. I think nearly $200,000 - far more than any other state lobbyist. And because she's so enmeshed in the culture of the state and because Florida is a state that has a very high population of NRA members, she's able to function as an unelected legislator and often has more power than legislators do and is able to tell governors what to do and able to tell Republican lawmakers there what to do. And that is - that is what she does.

GROSS: She sounds like a very colorful person. Would you describe her a little bit?

SPIES: She is very colorful. She is less than five feet tall, and she has a pageboy haircut, and she carries a laser-guided pistol in her purse. And she is a very legendarily vindictive person who plays the kind of hardball politics - and that's, I'd say, putting it politely - that people think of when they watch, like, "House Of Cards" but don't think of as being real. She's almost a movie character or a television show character in that way.

GROSS: So you've said that Marion Hammer, the NRA lobbyist in Florida, is very vindictive and that if you, you know, if you vote against an NRA bill, then you are going - you're going to hear about it (laughter). So can you give us an example where she worked against somebody who had voted for some kind of gun safety or gun control legislation?

SPIES: Sure. Last year, there's a perfect example. A representative named Charles McBurney who had an A-plus rating for the NRA and always voted with Marion Hammer was the chair of the judiciary committee there. And there was an attempt to pass a bill that actually would have enhanced Florida's stand your ground statute. That bill actually passed this year. But without getting into the nitty-gritty of that law, he also was a lawyer in addition to being a lawmaker, and he thought that the additional protections for shooters, which is what the law or the bill proposed, were unnecessary and would have made jobs for prosecutors impossible. So he effectively killed the bill by refusing to put it on the calendar of his committee.

After that happened, he was also - or as it happened, he was also in his final term as a lawmaker, and he was hoping to be appointed to, like, a circuit court in Jacksonville and was among the, you know, final three potential candidates for that position. And it seemed like he was actually the favored candidate for Governor Scott, and Marion Hammer, remembering what he did, put together a huge campaign in which many thousands of NRA members sent emails to Governor Scott telling him under no circumstances to appoint Charles McBurney to the circuit court judgeship. And very shortly after that happened, McBurney was not appointed to the circuit court judgeship. Someone else was. And it was directly - I mean, you could say directly because of what he did.

GROSS: You said that she drafted Florida's Stand Your Ground legislation. Would you just recap for us what that legislation was? And Florida was the first state to pass stand your ground. So describe what the legislation was and then I'll ask you about her role in drafting it.

SPIES: Sure. So stand your ground, which was proposed in the Florida legislature in 2004 and enacted in 2005, re-formatted or re-conceived Florida's self-defense law. And by - the way it did that was it said that if you found yourself in a dangerous in public or in any place you have a right to be that you did not have a duty to retreat - and the duty to retreat is crucial because that was part of self-defense laws. We knew it before stand your ground. You did not have a duty to retreat and you were allowed to respond with deadly force if you believe that your life is in danger.

GROSS: So when you say she drafted this legislation, what does that mean?

SPIES: It means that she and NRA lawyers put the legislation together and brought it to lawmakers in the state, three of them who were her close allies in the legislature, and they sponsored it.

GROSS: Now, does everyone else in the legislature know that the bill was actually drafted by an NRA lobbyist?

SPIES: Everyone in the Florida legislature knows that every gun bill is drafted by an NRA lobbyist.

GROSS: And that doesn't make a difference.

SPIES: Makes no difference. I think a lot of, you know, one of the dirty secrets, especially in state politics in this country, is that lots of bills are drafted by lobbyists but the bills that the NRA produces are of a very unique variety. And no, nobody - I mean, Democrats care, but they have been in the minority for a very long time with the state, so it doesn't really matter what they think. And Republicans don't care, no.

GROSS: So why is stand your ground important to the NRA?

SPIES: It goes hand in hand with the normalization of gun carrying in public. I think - you know, it's interesting that the NRA has co-opted the term self-defense to such a degree that when I think of self-defense I don't even - I immediately associate it with a gun. I don't actually think about that there's a whole bunch of other kinds of self-defense. It can mean anything. It means just defending yourself.

But that's important for the NRA because if you're going to enable people to carry guns, concealed handguns, in public, which the NRA is responsible for that - they're the organization that created the original right to conceal carry legislation - then you also - to some degree you also need a law that will facilitate or allow people to use their weapons in a way that they previously would not have been able to do. If you're going to give people the right to carry guns in public and you're telling them that they need the guns because they have to defend themselves, then stand your ground is a way of sort of codifying that message.

GROSS: So Marion Hammer, the Florida NRA lobbyist, also created the model for concealed carry legislation. What was the legislation that passed in Florida that she drafted?

SPIES: It's really a relatively recent phenomenon that people, you know, are allowed to carry concealed handguns in public and not just that they're allowed but states have to give - allow them to do it if they qualify for what is called the concealed carry permit. And she created the permit system in Florida that essentially was, you know, that has been the basis for every state's concealed carry permit system in the country. And the concealed carry permit system is if you want to carry a handgun in public, you have to apply to get a permit.

Usually, you have to pay a fee, and you have to undergo some kind of training. Previously, most states had a system in which only under, you know, very specific circumstances would you be allowed to carry a handgun. And this basically came around and said if you're a lawful gun owner, you can carry a handgun in public so long as you go through the very simple protocol to do so.

GROSS: So while we're on the subject of concealed carry, the NRA on the national level is trying to make it so that if you live in a state where it's legal to have concealed carry, you can do that in other states even where it's not legal. Would you explain that?

SPIES: They think that if you get a concealed carry permit, say, in Utah, or any state, that your permit should function the same as your driver's license. So if you have a driver's license in Utah, you're legally allowed to drive anywhere with that license. Right now, though there are states that have agreements with other states, another state is not required to recognize your concealed carry permit. The legislation that they're proposing, which is, you know, called reciprocity for short, would require states to recognize other states' licenses, even if - even in New York, for example, you know, which has a very strict and limited permit law.

GROSS: My guest is Mike Spies. He covers the gun lobby for The Trace, which reports on gun-related issues in America. After a break, we'll talk about the NRA's efforts to allow guns in daycare centers, college campuses, government buildings, bars. Also Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko and David Edelstein will review the new sequel to "Blade Runner," starring Ryan Gosling. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Mike Spies about the NRA. He's been covering the gun lobby since 2015. He writes for The Trace, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization covering gun-related issues. He wrote a series called The Gunfighters examining the NRA's influence on state policy and politics.

So there were two real major high-profile shootings in Florida. One of them had to do with stand your ground. That was when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. And the other was the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, the massacre there. So did either of those cases have any impact on Florida legislation? Did it change the minds of any of the legislators? Did it decrease in any way the NRA's power in Florida?

SPIES: I want to say this very - in a very emphasized way. In absolutely no way did either of those cases change anything in Florida. In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, I think under public pressure Governor Rick Scott did convene a panel that was going to study the law, in theory, study the law and offer perhaps potential solutions for making it better. But in the end, even though that panel was convened, there was no change to the statute at all.

And after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Democratic lawmakers in the state wanted to convene a special session of the legislature - 'cause at the time, they were out of session - to pass legislation that would, at the state level, close what I referred to earlier as the terror gap. And the Republican lawmakers in the state immediately denied Democrats that desire and just said no. It is entirely impossible to pass anything that approximates gun control legislation in Florida.

GROSS: So on the state level, the NRA is trying to pass certain legislation. They're also trying to dismantle certain legislation. You've written about how there are bills on a state level and training and licensing requirements for concealed carry.

SPIES: Yeah. That's probably one of the most popular pieces of legislation that comes up every single year at the start of state legislative sessions. And most of those sessions are over now, and I think several of those - they're called permitless carry bills. And basically those bills, once they're enacted, render a state's permitting system obsolete. It means that once a state goes permitless, you are allowed to - assuming you can pass a background check - you're allowed to go purchase a firearm, a handgun, and then you're just allowed to carry a concealed in public. You don't have to take any of the steps that a permit requires you to take, which, as you pointed out, can and often includes training and always includes some kind of payment, sometimes fingerprinting.

You know, if you want to do it you're going to have to, like, at least work for it a little bit. And I believe now the count - and this is a very recent phenomenon, just to be clear, to show you how quickly it spread - the count for states that are now permitless numbers at about 12. So, you know, that's more than a fifth of all states in the country where you're allowed to carry a concealed handgun without getting a permit first.

GROSS: So - so one of the priorities for the NRA on the state level is allowing guns in places that were previously not allowed - bars, churches, day care centers, college campuses, public housing. Why is that a priority for the NRA?

SPIES: Yeah. It - it goes into their sort of core agenda, which is, again, to normalize gun carrying as much as possible in American public life. So that means putting guns in places where people don't traditionally see them and then sort of getting them used to the idea that guns are going to be there. Some of the places that you've mentioned - college campuses, bars, for obvious reasons, why would you want a gun in a bar when people are drinking? Day care centers or government buildings - I mean, these are places that previously and for most of American history are considered what you might term sacred spaces.

The NRA adamantly opposes sacred spaces or what are also called gun-free zones is something that it often talks about in the wake of mass shootings because it needs to sell the idea that an armed society is a safer society and that if you have places where guns aren't allowed, according to the NRA, the people in those places are essentially sitting ducks and are more likely to be killed. So it's just key to the story the NRA tells about itself and to its members, which is that a good guy - you know, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and a good guy with a gun can only do that if he's allowed to - he or she is allowed to have a gun anywhere.

GROSS: So the NRA is in conjunction with an insurance company selling a new kind of insurance to gun owners called Carry Guard. Would you describe what that is?

SPIES: In April they launched an insurance program called Carry Guard, and Carry Guard is underwritten, actually, by a major insurer, one of the most major insurers in the country, called Chubb. And Carry Guard is essentially self-defense insurance. That's what they bill it as. And the point of the insurance is that you are covered or you get coverage for your legal fees and other related legal expenses in the event that you kill someone while claiming self-defense.

It's a very new kind of insurance. They're not the first ones to launch it, but this is definitely, like, the biggest entity to offer it. And since they've launched it, the marketing effort behind it has been pretty relentless. And the way they sell it to their membership is by saying, you know, essentially you live in an extremely dangerous society. You carry a gun. You shouldn't have to think twice about using your gun in a dangerous situation because you're worried that you're going to wind up going bankrupt after you do so. Get this insurance so you won't go bankrupt after you kill someone.

GROSS: So I've interviewed a lot of people about the NRA, and I still don't really understand why do they have the power that they have? I mean, I know they represent the gun industry. Is the gun industry, like, that big and that powerful? I know they represent gun owners, but a lot of gun owners are also really concerned about gun safety. They want to use their guns for whatever sport they use it for, target practice, hunting or whatever, but they don't want to see massacres. So, like, what - what's - you cover the NRA. What's - what's your understanding of, like, why do they have so much power?

SPIES: I'm not sure there's a simple and satisfying answer to the question. But I do think that people misunderstand the appeal of the NRA and what makes it a distinctly different entity from any other special-interest group, like, for example, the AARP, which is a group that has a fair amount of power, or Emily's List. The NRA is more than just a group that pushes gun rights. It is much closer to a religion or like a very particular way of life, and that's what it sells its members.

They say they have 5 million members, which ultimately is a pretty small portion of the populace, but many of those members really do care in a way that is distinctly different than members of other special-interest groups like the - the AARP. The NRA has become essentially an organ of the Republican Party. It doesn't do anything for Democrats. It hasn't for a long time. And the way it spends on election bears that out. It spends essentially all of its money, and quite a lot of money, trying to keep Republicans in power, putting new ones in power.

So I say that because it's also useful for Republicans to sell the idea that the NRA has power because it enables them to keep their caucus together. It's a symbiotic relationship. The Republican Party and the NRA use each other. And then of course as a more practical matter, especially since 2010, the NRA has spent well over $100 million on federal elections, always ranking them among the top outside spenders. And last year no outside groups spent more supporting Donald Trump than the NRA did.

GROSS: Has President Trump done things in support of the NRA?

SPIES: You know, right after he nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he convened, like, a small assembly of leading conservatives in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. And there was a picture of that that circulated, and seated next to the president was the NRA's CEO, Wayne LaPierre. Wayne LaPierre also appeared at the White House's Easter egg hunt. Wayne LaPierre appeared at CPAC, you know, the Conservative Political Action Conference, talking very openly about, like, this deep alliance that the NRA has with the Trump administration, and when Donald Trump spoke, he reciprocated by talking about the relationship going in the other direction. So it's - there is a PR element to this. It reinforces the idea that the NRA has a direct line to the most powerful person in the country.

GROSS: So if - if we look at the massacre in Vegas, is there any kind of gun policy that has been proposed or that has been enacted in any state that might have stopped the shooter?

SPIES: On the one hand, I think it might be still too early to tell. But one thing I do come back to or that I've thought about recently was the 2005 federal legislation that passed and was enacted that essentially protects gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits. You know, to be clear, that means that victims of massacres are not able to sue gun manufacturers. And while I certainly can't say that that would have prevented the massacre, I do think that that's a necessary check that has been removed that allows manufacturers to not have to take responsibility for the arms that they put into the public that often have no justifiable civilian application.

And I guess one other thing - one of the things that has come out is that a number of the shooter's weapons were semi-automatics, were automated - or, were altered, I should say, with - with an attachment that's called bump fire that essentially turns a weapon into an automatic weapon and allows them to fire multiple rounds while holding the trigger down with your finger instead of having to just continually pull the trigger to fire round after round. And having - being able to fire multiple rounds while holding down a trigger obviously allows you to spray bullets, and that's pretty effective when you're spraying into a crowd of, you know, 20-plus thousand people.

So legislation that would ban those bump fire attachments, which has been proposed before, I think by Senator Dianne Feinstein, and I - I believe she's brought it up again, I guess that's a pretty direct and clear thing that would have - would - would potentially have had an effect, at least to - to have made this less deadly than it was.

GROSS: Well, Mike Spies, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SPIES: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It was really wonderful.

GROSS: Mike Spies covers the gun lobby for The Trace. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko. This is FRESH AIR.

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