How Much Sway Does the N.R.A. Still Have?

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There’s some limited evidence that some Republicans are moving. Senators Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine have privately signaled their openness to confirming Mr. Biden’s pick — David Chipman, a longtime gun-control advocate — to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an agency that the N.R.A. has historically sought to weaken, often by keeping its directorship weak or vacant.

Mr. Toomey has long teamed up with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, in sponsoring a bill that would expand background checks for gun sales. When the House last month passed a pair of bills to increase background checks, eight Republicans voted for one of them.

All eight represent districts in blue or purple states. In a caucus of 212 Republicans, that’s a measly number — but it’s not zero. (A separate bill closing further loopholes on background checks, passed on the same day, got just two Republican votes.)

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster and strategist, said that by emphasizing the need for bipartisan cooperation in negotiations within his own party, Mr. Manchin might have earned himself some bargaining power with some G.O.P. moderates in the Senate. “Manchin’s been kind of the common voice in some of this other legislation, not going too far off to the left, so he may have a lot of sway,” Mr. Goeas said. “I think a lot of Republicans are looking to him as a compromise point.”

Asked to comment on the status of the negotiations over the background checks bill, a spokesman for Mr. Toomey reported no new progress and referred back to the senator’s “ongoing work to find a consensus with Republicans and Democrats on strengthening background checks to extend them to all commercial sales.”

But polling in recent years has reflected the effects of the N.R.A.’s steady drumbeat of anti-gun-control messaging, specifically among Republican voters. According to consistent data from Pew Research Center over the past two decades, the percentage of Republicans nationwide saying that it was more important to protect gun owners’ rights than to rein in gun ownership has been on a steady upward trajectory. As of late 2019, the last time Pew asked the public which was more important, four out of five Republicans favored protecting gun owners’ rights.

In 2016, the N.R.A. spent roughly $50 million helping to elect Donald Trump and other Republicans, making it the largest independent group supporting his candidacy. In the process, it kept the defense of gun owners’ rights at the center of Republican partisan identity, even as the party’s message reshaped itself around Mr. Trump’s white, working-class conservative brand. His administration resisted any efforts to meaningfully step up gun control.

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