Proponents of tougher gun laws felt that momentum was finally on their side, after a string of horrific mass shootings last year propelled the issue back to national prominence.
Yet months later, gun legislation has been watered down due to a lack of support in Congress. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association, once thought to be on the ropes, has emerged stronger than ever.
The NRA posted its biggest fundraising month in over a decade in February, raking in almost $1.6 million dollars, according to Politico and Federal Election Commission filings. It's the gun lobby's biggest haul since October 2000, when the organization raised a ton thanks to George W. Bush's first presidential campaign.
The February haul comes on the heels of a stellar January for the NRA, when the organization pulled in $1.1 million. By comparison, the NRA raised $14.3 million in all of 2011 and 2012 combined.
The news comes days after Senate Democrats announced they were dumping a proposed assault weapons ban from pending gun legislation because they lacked the votes to break a GOP filibuster. It was a demoralizing defeat for a key Democratic proposal that at one point appeared to be gaining support from gun-friendly lawmakers.
A series of high-profile shootings last year, capped by the Sandy Hook massacre, sparked widespread outrage and renewed calls for tighter gun laws. After Sandy Hook in particular, which left 26 dead, most of them children, the NRA faced its most intense criticism. The media pilloried the group's CEO, Wayne LaPierre, as an out-of-touch "gun nut" who was the "craziest man on Earth," and it seemed for a time like change was inevitable.
"Is the Mighty NRA Beginning to Topple?" a Forbes headline asked in December.
But while calls for tougher gun laws grew louder, so too did the NRA's opposition. The organization released a number of no-holds-barred ads, with one calling the president an "elitist hypocrite." To back that up, the NRA also stepped up its fundraising pitch, warning members that Obama and congressional Democrats were going to curtail their right to bear arms.
There are signs the NRA's efforts have paid off. In addition to the massive fundraising haul, the assault weapons ban the group vehemently opposed is toast. And a CNN poll released this week found that support for major new gun laws — which a clear majority of Americans supported in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook — had fallen to a 43 percent, mostly due to firmer opposition from older, rural Americans.
"They can call me crazy, or anything else they want, but the NRA's nearly five million members, and America's 100 million gun owners, will not back down, not ever," LaPierre said in a speech to CPAC last week.
If that sounds like a familiar story, that's because it is. It's the same pattern that has played out following past tragic shootings, with the NRA time and again effectively raising millions and leading a successful drive to thwart new gun bills.
A review of annual NRA fundraising totals compiled by OpenSecrets.org shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that an intensification of the gun law debate has corresponded with a spike in NRA donations. Donations rose in 1994 when Congress debated an assault weapons ban, but then fell back to normal levels for the next half decade. When the Columbine shooting and presidential election returned gun laws to the forefront of political discourse in 2000, donations skyrocketed to $3.1 million from $2 million the year before.
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