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NRA gunning for more than just right to bear arms

The advocacy group has launched political fights that extend onto environmental and health care battlefields

When the Obama administration announced plans to halt the domestic sale of most elephant ivory, the National Rifle Association urged its members to mobilize against the ban.

While the NRA said it agreed with the goal of ending endangered elephant poaching, it warned that something far more important was at stake: “This is another attempt by this anti-gun administration to ban firearms,” the organization asserted in an alert.

When it comes to defending gun rights, no issue is seemingly too obscure for the NRA — not even the ivory trade. Amid the high-profile epic battles, including the recent clashes following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, there have been smaller, under-the-radar ones, too — often appearing to touch only tangentially on actual guns.

Indeed, the NRA doesn’t pick its battles: It fights every single one, according to Professor Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”

“Part of their political strategy is to look for any issue, any time, any place, any moment where they can exert some political pressure,” Spitzer said, “because the larger strategy is to be aggressive and always be on the offensive.”

Last fall, the gun rights group joined the American Civil Liberties Union in expressing alarm over the government’s domestic surveillance program, saying that the National Security Agency’s massive data collection was an affront to the First Amendment and a de facto — and possibly illegal — gun registry kept by the government.

In the case of the ivory ban, Spitzer said, the NRA sees it as “another instance of government extending its long, intrusive hand into law-abiding citizens.”

The NRA argues that banning the sale of ivory could prevent gun owners from selling firearms ornamented with ivory. The ban, the group says, would render many collections of firearms valueless. Antiques dealers, as well as musicians with instruments decorated with the material, also oppose the ban, which could go into effect in June.

The way the NRA sees it, any issue could serve as a slippery slope that leads to further government curbs on guns.

Part of [the NRA] political strategy is to look for any issue, any time, any place, any moment where they can exert some political pressure ... because the larger strategy is to be aggressive and always be on the offensive.

Robert Spitzer

State University of New York in Cortland

In recent weeks, the NRA asserted itself in opposing President Barack Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, a mostly ceremonial post that rarely garners much attention. Yet Dr. Vivek Murthy, the president’s nominee, ended up getting a huge level of scrutiny, much of it generated by NRA opposition.The group pointed out that Murthy once used his personal Twitter account to declare: “Guns are a health care issue.” Murthy’s prior public pronouncements supporting tougher gun laws, including a petition he signed urging action after Sandy Hook, also raised suspicion among gun rights advocates that Murthy would use the post as a bully pulpit for stricter gun laws.

Nor has the NRA sat idly by as doctors and others in the medical profession have condemned gun violence as a matter of public health. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has for years collected data on the matter. Though it might seem unusual for the NRA to inject itself into confirmation proceedings for surgeon general, health care policy is actually very familiar terrain for the gun group.

Four years ago, the NRA drafted language that was quietly inserted into the federal health care law. The little-noticed provision in the Affordable Care Act, under the heading “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights,” bars physicians and health insurers from collecting and disclosing information about a patient’s possession of legal firearms. Insurers were also banned from charging higher premiums for gun-owning subscribers.

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The NRA’s influence in Washington is substantial. Even amid intense public outrage over the shootings at Sandy Hook — which left 28 people dead, including the shooter and 20 children — the powerful gun lobby fended off new legislation that would have reinstated a now defunct federal ban on assault weapons.

The NRA declined comment for this story.

Lisa Graves, who heads the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch, pointed to the NRA’s backing of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), which not only supports stronger Second Amendment rights but has also pushed pro-business and conservative social policy, including restrictive voting laws in some states. “It’s clear that the NRA has been involved in other matters” besides guns, she said.

Graves noted that the NRA led the ALEC task force overseeing the voting law program. “It’s not guilt by association, it’s direct action. They were the leader of that task force … to make it harder to vote,” she said.

Conservation groups have also faced off with the NRA. When environmental groups sued the government to force the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the use of lead ammunition, the NRA rushed to the government’s defense. Concerned that the EPA wouldn’t fight hard enough, the NRA intervened as an interested party and all but commandeered the case from government lawyers.

“The NRA inserted themselves as a party of interest and pretty much ran the show,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based group that twice sued the EPA to ban lead ammunition. “They took the lead on the legal motions, and the EPA pretty much let them run the show.”

The Toxic Substances Control Act gives the EPA authority to regulate chemicals that could poison land, water and air. But the agency said it had no authority to ban lead-containing bullets, including buckshot, from the country’s wild lands.

Conservation groups say their fight wasn’t just about restricting the right to hunt — it had more to do with removing a potential poison from the country’s hunting grounds. According to environmental groups, shotgun shells loaded with lead pellets could leach into the soil and poison wildlife. “You’ve already got a lot of hunters using rifles, shotguns and pistols that use bullets that aren’t toxic,” Miller said.

But that was not enough for the NRA. “There was all this outrage about taking guns away and taking away Second Amendment rights,” Miller said. “They turned it into an emotional issue about guns when it’s not really an issue about guns.”

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