Fast and Furious

NRA Has Democrats Running Scared in Eric Holder Contempt Vote

Some in Eric Holder’s own party are defecting on the GOP’s contempt of Congress vote against him Thursday in the face of NRA pressure. Eleanor Clift and Patricia Murphy report.

More than two dozen Democrats could abandon their party and support a contempt charge against Attorney General Eric Holder, the latest sign of the fear-inducing power of the National Rifle Association.

Justice Department officials scrambled Wednesday to hold back the wave of defections from moderates after the NRA notified members of Congress that Thursday’s vote on the House floor will be used in candidate evaluations going into the November elections.

The group’s decision to “score” the vote shows that the standoff over Fast and Furious, a botched gun-running operation, comes down to guns, the NRA agenda, and Holder’s perceived support for an anti-gun agenda. White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed the vote as “political theater,” and during a House committee hearing on the rules for the contempt vote, the panel’s top Democrat, Louise Slaughter, said she was “totally perplexed” by the entire effort against Holder. “It sounds like a child's game,” she said. “This has all the trappings of a witch hunt.”

Republicans contend that Holder is defying lawful subpoenas in refusing to turn over internal documents beyond the more than 7,000 he has already surrendered. And with so much on the line symbolically, the Justice Department is taking nothing for granted. For days high-level agency officials have been calling House Democrats one by one in an effort to shore up support for the attorney general and are working to tighten the message that Holder has worked diligently to give Republicans what they want and is now the victim of a political vendetta.

“DOJ wants members brushed up on this because they are taking the vote seriously,” said a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the calls. “They are worried about it.”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said they will walk out of the vote against Holder, who is the first African-American attorney general, to protest the Republican assault. “We adamantly oppose this partisan attack and refuse to participate in any vote that would tarnish the image of Congress or of an attorney general who has done nothing but work tirelessly to protect the rights of the American people,” the CBC members wrote in a letter, first obtained by Politico.

Understanding the risks associated with what will be the first time in history a cabinet member will be cited for contempt, the Republican leadership has essentially buried the vote by scheduling it on the same day that the Supreme Court will hand down its long-awaited decision on Obamacare. The timing of the vote, hours after the Supreme Court ruling and the day before Congress adjourns for its July 4th recess, means that the GOP can deliver for its conservative base, and for the NRA, but the press coverage of what could appear to be an partisan overreach will be minimized.

Rarely in recent U.S. history have gun rights been this unassailable, and gun control efforts so ineffective. Even after high-profile shootings at Virginia Tech, and in Tucson, where Gabby Giffords was gravely injured, every branch of government—executive, legislative and judicial—has acquiesced in expanding gun rights. The assault weapons ban signed into law by Bill Clinton lapsed under George W. Bush, and President Obama has no intention of reviving it—not even in a second term if he gets one.

Obama campaigned on reinstating the ban, but quickly backed away in the face of opposition from Democrats in red states whose support he needed on health care reform. “Since Obama’s been in office the only thing that’s happened from the legislative side, they now allow guns in national parks,” says Paul Helmke, former head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The law that sanctioned firearms in national parks was an amendment attached to a credit card reform bill that Obama signed into law in May 2009. Obama and the Democrats badly wanted the legislation and accepted the totally unrelated NRA approved amendment as the price for passage. It’s the kind of thing that happens on Capitol Hill when the NRA flexes its muscles. The politicians fold, fearing a bad rating from the NRA will cost them their reelection. Until the NRA entered the fray, the vote to cite Holder for contempt would have fallen almost entirely along party lines; instead anywhere from two to three dozen Democrats in vulnerable districts are expected to vote with the GOP.

There is no effective opposition to the gun lobby, yet the NRA has convinced its members that gun rights are under imminent attack. Fast and Furious is portrayed as part of a conspiracy emanating from the White House and the Justice Department to turn guns over to Mexican cartels knowing that would provoke a wave of violence, which could then be used to scare Americans into backing more gun regulations.

“It’s flat-out insanity to say they sold guns on purpose that resulted in the deaths of people so they could pass legislation to prevent guns,” says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign.

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A spokesman for the NRA, Andrew Arulanandam, told The Daily Beast he is not backing away from characterizing the confluence of events as a conspiracy, pointing out that Holder called for a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban in early 2009 at the same time Fast and Furious was being conceived.

The fact that Obama steered clear of gun control in his first term is seen by gun enthusiasts as the strongest possible evidence he would act in a second term. Arulanandam says it is “overly generous” to say that gun control groups are moribund and inactive. “Gun control groups and their allies in Congress are really adept at exploiting tragedy. All it takes is one unfortunate crime for them to stand up and demand gun control.”

The fight over Fast and Furious centers around some 2,000 guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives lost track of when it allowed the weapons to “walk” across the border with low-level traffickers in an effort to reach the higher-ups and build cases against them. Those lost firearms are 3 percent of the weapons that crossed the border illegally into Mexico in the last four years, and were bought legally in U.S. gun shops in the border states, with the exception of California, which has kept its assault weapons ban in place.

The Brady campaign’s Helmke was with Jim and Sarah Brady when they met with Obama at the White House last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life. Helmke was disappointed that Obama didn’t seize the moment when the Giffords shooting was still raw. But he says he’s not blaming Obama; that the political aversion to tampering with gun rights goes well beyond the current occupant of the Oval Office. Clinton attributed his loss of the Congress in 1994 to his support for the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban, and it has been gospel truth among Democrats ever since that gun regulation is a loser politically.

Supreme Court decisions knocking down gun-control laws in the District of Columbia and Chicago have since made it clear that an individual’s right to have a gun is paramount. “Even if Obama wanted to, and Congress wanted to, they couldn’t take your gun away,” says Helmke.