President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda is looking more doomed by the day, but gun control advocates still haven’t said a word to complain.
That’s no accident.
The White House knew its post-Newtown effort would require bringing key gun control groups into the fold. So the White House offered a simple arrangement: the groups could have access and involvement, but they’d have to offer silence and support in exchange.
The implied rules, according to conversations with many of those involved: No infighting. No second-guessing in the press. Support whatever the president and Vice President Joe Biden propose. And most of all, don’t make waves or get ahead of the White House.
In exchange: a voice in the discussions, a role in whatever final agreement is made and weekly meetings at the White House with Biden’s chief of staff, Bruce Reed — provided they don’t discuss what happens there.
“The implication is very, very strong when they are calling these meetings and we are all sitting there,” said one regular attendee, who like the others, would only speak about them anonymously. “It’s not like they’re being bullies, it’s them bringing everybody together, not being one-off meetings with groups that might be interested in things other than the bottom line, not providing the forum for that kind of stuff.”
“You’re glad to be in the room,” another participant in the Reed meetings said. “Because this issue has been dead for a long time and now there’s a real opportunity there.”
For the White House, which wouldn’t comment about Reed’s meetings or the relationships with the gun control groups, this strategy was about ensuring the president had a united front as he pushed for new laws — and that he won’t shoulder the blame if and when the negotiations fail.
But he’s forced a major change on some of Washington’s noisiest advocates: the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Third Way, Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly. In past fights, gun control groups sparred with each other and got used to dictating the agenda to allies in Congress.
Now they’re just happy to be included in the discussion, and still holding out hope that something might happen.
“There is a lot of reliance on how the White House sees the strategy and the tactics going forward,” said Paul Helmke, who was the Brady Campaign president from 2006 to 2011. “We need the White House.”
That’s held true even as the hopes for any legislation has dimmed on even the most basic measures. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday ended the bipartisan talks on universal background checks with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and filed his own bill without co-sponsors or the suggestions made by Coburn and Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Losing Coburn from the background checks talks increases the likelihood that the only gun control measure that can pass the Senate is on gun trafficking, a far less sweeping proposal than background checks or the doomed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Schumer, Manchin and Kirk will try to attract other Republicans to replace Coburn in their coalition.
As the talks finally collapsed Wednesday, Manchin met for 40 minutes with Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to discuss background checks. He’s also spoken with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) about signing on to a deal.
“We saw several paths to 60 a month ago, and now we’ll take them,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “It would have been great to have Sen. Coburn, and still would. But no rational strategy would ever have relied on such an unlikely bedfellow.”
Anti-gun groups used to see Obama as a disappointment — he got an “F” for his first year from the Brady Campaign, and then after they gave him no grades at all.
But advocates have reason to support Obama’s gun control proposals: they essentially helped write them. But that was two years ago, after Giffords was shot in January 2011, when they delivered a set of proposals to Attorney General Eric Holder, only to see the administration put them off to the side.
“Most of the things, including executive orders, that the president laid out in January are the things that the groups almost unanimously had presented to him beforehand,” said Helmke, now a professor at Indiana University. “Now the president realizes that something really did have to get done.”
There are occasional disagreements — the Brady Campaign and Bloomberg’s Mayors group gripe about each other privately — but the White House has made sure those complaints stay private.
The groups have seen how the White House has treated other would-be allies it doesn’t trust. The Violence Policy Center, which opposed the 2004 assault weapons ban renewal on grounds it did not go far enough, has been cut out of the post-Newtown discussions, relegated to “the kids’ table,” one person involved in the gun control push said, since attending one larger session with Biden in January.
Violence Policy Center officials did not respond to requests for comment.
When the White House decided in January to not elevate National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre by responding to him, the groups followed suit, even though for years they raised money and attention by forcefully rebutting the NRA. They’ve also not said a harsh public word about Coburn, despite the collapse of the talks to produce a bipartisan Senate deal on universal background checks.
“Senator Coburn has shown in some ways that he appreciates the value of background checks,” said Brady Campaign President Dan Gross.
It’s not just advocates: the White House has also kept in line members of Congress who have made a career out of being outspoken on gun control. Biden speaks regularly with Rep. Mike Thompson of California, who is leading the House Democrats’ gun violence task force.
Accordingly, there’s been no sniping from the likes of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who hasn’t made a headline since warning the night of the Newtown shootings that “the gloves are off” with the White House if it failed to act on gun control.
McCarthy is holding her tongue on the White House gun control strategy, even though the major push has been for background checks and gun trafficking, not the ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines she has championed for years.
That’s because she is happy enough that the White House is finally backing a gun control push.
McCarthy declined to be interviewed for this story.
Thompson said he has made clear to his House colleagues the importance of staying on message — which for now means a full push on background checks.
“We’re all working toward the same goal,” Thompson said. “We want to make sure that we’re not at odds with each other. If we are, that is the truest way to fail.”
That is the key lesson gun control groups and their congressional allies learned in 2004, when they failed to unite behind a single strategy to renew the assault weapons ban and it expired. Groups like the Violence Policy Center criticized the ban and fought for tighter restrictions.
The post-Newtown moment marks the first time in generations that a White House has led the charge on gun control. Even in the early 1990s, it was then-Sen. Biden and then-Rep. Schumer leading the Capitol Hill fight for the Brady Bill and the original assault weapons ban, rather than Clinton administration officials.
Now one person who leads a group engaged in the background checks fight said there is far more pragmatism among the groups than ever before. In the past, the groups fought over tactics, strategy and credit. Now they are “singing ‘Kumbaya’ and exchanging congratulatory emails,” the person said.
That’s a far cry from the George W. Bush years, when the gun groups’ core mission was to serve as a high-profile critics of the administration’s gun policies, said former Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), who was the Brady president from 2000 to 2006.
Now, Barnes said, it would be “counterproductive” to the cause of gun control for any of the groups to make waves — even if they don’t believe Obama’s effort goes far enough.
“It probably doesn’t go as far as some of us would like, but it’s a great program,” Barnes said. “They shouldn’t be putting energy into trying to make it stronger because it’s going to be very tough to pass this. A lot of people say it can’t be done. If I were involved, I would counsel against people saying it doesn’t go far enough.”