(MCT) — WASHINGTON — From standing firm against anti-gun political opportunists to surrendering to an assault weapons ban, there is no shortage of advice about what the National Rifle Association should say when it breaks its silence about the Newtown, Conn., massacre on Friday.
“The NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers … and hopefully they’ll do some reflection,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday as he promised a comprehensive anti-violence agenda next month covering gun control, mental health access and changes to a culture that glorifies gun violence.
Obama’s commitment to push Congress for action, rather than more talk, in the new year was the latest sign that public opinion and national politics have changed since the deaths Friday of 20 first-graders shot repeatedly in their school by a gunman with an assault rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Until now, the NRA has been silent about the Newtown shooting, besides promising to respond on Friday and “offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
A political powerhouse, the NRA spent $14 million against Obama in last month’s election and has built a network of both Democratic and Republican allies in Washington and state capitals, who have worked not only to block new controls — like those being discussed now that have languished in Congress — and to also roll back some restrictions on guns.
While the death of the children has shown signs that some of its power is diminished, and even gun owners — including rank-and-file NRA members — are questioning the need for military-style weapons for civilians, the fate of new control measures is far from certain, regardless of how it responds to the latest tragedy.
Like any group or corporation in the middle of a controversy, the NRA has a range of options, experts in crisis management and politicians said. At one end of the spectrum, it can signal contrition and cooperate with opponents. At the other end, it can try to shift blame to others, attack proposed solutions as ineffective, and wait to see if public opinion shifts.
And there are plenty of advocates for all of those positions.
“If they say anything other than we need a comprehensive solution that includes an assault weapons ban, I think they’re marginalizing themselves,” said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. “I think there’s a growing consensus that these weapons do not belong on the streets of the United States.”
But the organization’s supporters were equally convinced that that would not happen, and it is unclear what would change if the NRA said it should, because they believe banning weapons will not be effective, violates constitutional rights or gives in to the political motives of opponents.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said more gun laws are not needed and he was sure the NRA will not say there should be.
“They will say every time a disaster occurs, it reignites the far left’s enthusiasm for gun control,” said Inhofe, who has had an A-plus NRA rating and said there was no need for laws. “Why would the criminal element choose that law to comply with? It’s not going to happen.”
Inhofe said he does not believe anything, short of more security at schools, could be done to stop “a deranged young man,” and disparaged House Democrats who on Wednesday called for an immediate vote on banning high-capacity ammunition clips.
“They are trying to politically exploit this and that’s fine. Who’s going to remember this by the next election?” he said.
Obama said he was instructing Vice President Joe Biden and Cabinet officials to meet with opponents and supporters of gun control, mental health experts and others to develop proposals, and that he will discuss them in his State of the Union address.
He also reiterated his support for the Second Amendment, and said no effort to reduce gun violence would be successful without gun owners’ participation.
“I am also betting that the majority, the vast majority, of responsible law-abiding gun owners would be some of the first to say that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war,” he said.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has sponsored several of the bills Obama said have broad public support, including background checks for purchases at gun shows and limits on ammunition magazine capacity.
“Make no mistake, this task force will not be used to punt on gun safety reform,” Lautenberg said. “It will be used to advance reasonable reforms that protect children and families from senseless acts of gun violence.”
Gun owners showed the complexity the NRA faces in dealing with its membership.
“I’m for owning weapons,” said Ken Kalemba, president of the Shawnee Hunting Club in Saddle Brook, N.J. “But assault weapons? Somewhere there’s got to be a control on (them).”
John LoPresti, president of the Lyndhurst Gun Club in New Jersey who said he buys guns solely for hunting, was leery of laws that restrict the Second Amendment.
“I have no reason or interest in owning (an assault weapon),” LoPresti said. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t want someone to tell me I can’t have one.”
Professionals who work in crisis management and public relations said the NRA has to be seen as working toward a solution and not standing in the way, while at the same time taking care not to set expectations higher than they are prepared to go.
“They’ve set a pretty high bar by saying they want to make sure it never happens again,” said Michael G. Cherenson, a former president of the Public Relations Society of America.
“It can’t simply be about education and policing existing laws because in many ways existing laws were enforced in Connecticut. It’s got to be something new and different,” he said.
Michael Turner, a Trenton, N.J.-based consultant who specializes in crisis management, said the NRA should not have waited to respond, and has relinquished ground in the debate by its inaction and let Obama take control of the message.
“I would advise them to make real, substantive reform measures that put the strongest advocates back on their heels,” Turner said. “They need to put together the strongest set of counterproposals and make this a real reform debate, and say it’s not about limiting access to weapons; its about the need to do more, and make this an actual dialogue about violence in our country.”
But Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant in Florida, said he believed any dialogue would be one-sided and not recognize that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible and should not be stereotyped.
“There is a great desire among a lot of the … media in D.C. and New York to use the tragedy to fulfill the ideological end that they have,” he said.
“It doesn’t diminish how shocking and terrible and how horrific the deaths of these children are, but we live in a country where constitutional rights should be tinkered with only in the most extraordinary circumstance,” he said.
Other gun-rights supporters said that if there’s going to be a national conversation, it should be about a broad range of topics, including abortion.
“I would expect an organization like (the NRA) to defend the Bill of Rights and express sympathy for the victims and encourage people to take a broader view,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
“We need to ask some questions. What’s the value of life? When we start interfering with life in the womb, does it discount the life of everybody?” Grassley said.