And, in fact, Cornyn offered some pretty straightforward comments on the National Rifle Association on Wednesday — comments that amount to a significant and unusual rebuke of the nation’s leading firearms group from a GOP senator.
Speaking to reporters about the bill, Cornyn pointed out that the NRA had been widely consulted. But he said the band would never agree to just about anything because of their “business model”.
“We worked with the NRA, listened to their concerns, but in the end I think they just – they have a membership and a business model that won’t allow them to support any legislation,” Cornyn said.
He added: “And so I understand where they’re coming from, but I think most people won’t allow any outside group to veto good public policy.”
That’s not how Republicans usually talk about the NRA.
The implication of Cornyn’s comments – particularly the “business model” part – is that the issue may be less about principled political disagreements and more about NRA fundraising and political power. GOP supporters of the bill believe the NRA was quite supportive of the proposal, but ultimately opposed the bill because it could not be seen as supporting anything that might even be construed as “gun control”. (Indeed, the bill stops long before what the Democrats wanted – say, an assault weapons ban or the removal of the gun industry’s immunity from lawsuit – and even of the failed Toomey-Manchin proposal of ten years ago.)
Supreme Court strikes down New York law, recognizes right to bear arms outside the home
Of course, this posture has been evident for a long time; the NRA has made it clear that it views virtually all new gun restrictions – even modest ones, as the current ones are – as a slippery slope. And he’s been adamantly opposed to almost everything except briefly suggesting in 2018 that he might pass red flag laws after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
But you don’t usually see Republican politicians say it that bluntly.
NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter responded Thursday, “The NRA represents millions of members and gun owners. They join the NRA because we help protect and advance their Second Amendment, self-defense and hunting rights, and we oppose gun control legislation. Representing the interests of our members across the country is our business model.
Cornyn’s comments drew praise from Fred Guttenberg, the relative of one of Parkland‘s victims. He thanked Cornyn for “telling the truth” about the NRA.
The comments are particularly significant, given Cornyn’s stature in the GOP. The former No. 2 Republican Senate leader, he is seen as a possible successor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell also supports the bipartisan deal, but he has already secured the top job and there are no real signs that he will be unseated, despite Trump’s efforts. And Cornyn has more to lose by alienating a group like the NRA. His rivals to succeed McConnell, the senses. John Thune (RS.D.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), both oppose the bill, which is certainly the simplest political call for an ambitious Republican.
There are very few examples of Republicans thumbing their noses at the NRA in recent years. As president, Trump has repeatedly suggested he might thwart the group — both after Parkland and in early 2019. He at one point told GOP senators opposite that they were “frightened” and even “petrified” by the NRA and added: “They have great power over you; they have less power over me. But he did nothing to back up those harsh words. Indeed, although he expressed support for the red flag laws at the time, he is now attacking the current bill for simply providing funding to encourage states to adopt the policy he once supported.
This is quite normal for the course of Trump, whose principles have always been very malleable. And even if he protests against the contrary, he has always been very sensitive to anything that could even potentially alienate the right or the groups that have dominated it.
Cornyn’s comments on political power dynamics and the NRA are less direct, but they are no less significant, given that they are backed by action that challenges the group. And they will become more important if other Republicans — 14 other GOP senators support the legislation — summon the courage to speak out about the organizationally wounded group in even somewhat similar ways.
We shouldn’t count on it, but they have already shown more willingness to thwart the NRA than at any time in recent memory.
This post has been updated with the NRA’s response.