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A Look At The Political Clout Of The National Rifle Association


There was a time when the National Rifle Association was known mostly for promoting gun safety and personal ownership of firearms. These days, the NRA is better known as an uncompromising political force. It defends its interpretation of the Second Amendment and works to defeat politicians it sees as enemies. Now, this transition has happened over several decades. NPR's Don Gonyea looks at one early and telling race that signaled the change.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Congressman Mike Synar was just 28 years old when he went to Washington, a Democrat from Muskogee. Yes, Oklahoma still sent Democrats to Congress back then. In those early years, Synar counted the NRA among his supporters.

NATHAN GERTH: What we're looking at here in terms of the letter...

GONYEA: That's Nathan Gerth of the University of Oklahoma reading a letter from 1980 found among boxes and boxes of documents from Synar's career.

GERTH: The National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund is pleased to announce its endorsement of Congressman Mike Synar for the re-election from Oklahoma's 2nd District.

GONYEA: But the honeymoon did not last. After the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981 and several mass shootings, Synar supported stricter gun laws. Here he is on the House floor in 1993.


MIKE SYNAR: The Brady Bill, my colleagues, was introduced in 1987. Six long murderous years have passed. One hundred thousand of our best and brightest citizens have been killed by handguns since it was first introduced.

GONYEA: He would also co-sponsor the ban on assault weapons. The NRA responded by pouring cash and energy into defeating him. They backed Democrats to oppose him in primaries. In '92, Synar's opponent used that support, including full-page ads funded by the NRA, to force a runoff in the primary. At the University of Oklahoma, Nathan Gerth points to the headlines on one of those now-yellowing newspaper ads.

GERTH: You see point blank that the NRA Political Victory Fund is making some bold statements about Synar. Right up front, it's saying he's not only anti-hunter, anti-gun, but he's anti-Oklahoman.

GONYEA: Synar survived that runoff, but in '94 - another Democratic challenger. Synar would defend himself in ads like this one, again, from the University of Oklahoma archive.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's not afraid to make powerful enemies if it means standing up for the people of Oklahoma - Mike Synar for Congress.

GONYEA: Painted as too liberal, Synar lost the primary to a retired school principal named Virgil Cooper who would himself go on to lose in November. The NRA did back then something it has since perfected. It got its voters out in large numbers, making guns a hot-button issue. Gene Wallace worked for Mike Synar in those years. He says they didn't fully appreciate that Synar's votes on gun control would hurt him.

GENE WALLACE: We did dismiss it because it wasn't a part of the public square debate. There wasn't anybody calling our office. There wasn't anybody coming to our office and saying, hey, we're fearful that someone is going to take our guns.

GONYEA: The NRA declined a request for comment. There is tragic end to Mike Synar's story. Less than a year after his defeat, he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1996. He was 45 years old. President Bill Clinton spoke at the memorial service.


BILL CLINTON: And if I hadn't been elected president, he never would have had to vote on that assault weapons ban.

GONYEA: Clinton added...


CLINTON: He always had that wonderful saying, you know, that if you don't want to fight fires, don't be a fireman. If you don't want to cast votes, don't be a congressman.

GONYEA: That audio from the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. In the decades since, the NRA has escalated its political activity. It wins by painting its opponents as out of touch with the values of their district. In 1994, Congressman Mike Synar was among the first to learn that. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.