Gun Control Debate 2013: For Manchin and the NRA, It's Become Very Personal Very Quickly


The recent dispute between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is hitting the airwaves with tit-for-tat ads. Firing the opening shot, the NRA has put out an ad attacking the senator for his efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases last spring. That proposal, in a bill cosponsored with Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), was defeated in the Senate on April 17 by a vote of 54-46, with a minimum of 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster.

The NRA ad portrays Sen. Manchin as a close ally of President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a high-profile advocate of gun control. A perceived association with President Obama could be a political death sentence in West Virginia, where Mitt Romney crushed President Obama 62%-36% in the 2012 election.

Manchin, like many Democrats from red states, is well aware of the danger of being perceived as too close to the national party or the president. He famously ran an ad in 2010 that trumpeted his (then) endorsement by the NRA and which showed him shooting a “cap and trade” bill. Manchin’s next election is not until 2018, but he is taking no chances. He has pledged to “at least match” the NRA’s $100,000 ad-buy against him by reaching into his $1.8 million dollar campaign war chest to buy ads of his own, starting this week. He has also energetically defended his vote on background checks, meeting with interest groups across the state to explain his bill. And he is attempting to drive a wedge between the NRA and gun owners, with one of his aids saying the “Washington NRA” is out of touch with average gun owners.

The fact that Manchin does not face another election until 2018 may make the NRA’s actions seem a little premature, but it shows how personal this feud has gotten. On the day of the Senate vote on background checks, Manchin took to the floor of the Senate and all but called the NRA liars for their public campaign against the bill, in which they said it would lead to a national gun registry, something the bill expressly prohibited. The NRA ads are airing in the senator’s home state and on the NRA web site, while Manchin’s chief of staff has reportedly let his NRA membership expire. The NRA’s opposition to the bill was all the more remarkable because Sen. Manchin and Sen. Toomey, both of whom have A-ratings from the NRA, had consulted with NRA leadership and allayed their concerns in drafting the bill. On his Morning Joe program Monday, former Representative Joe Scarborough speculated that the NRA decided to oppose the bill after being publicly criticized by a more hard-line gun rights group, Gun Owners of America.

Interestingly, no NRA ads have surfaced against the bill’s cosponsor, Senator Toomey, who faces reelection in 2016, two years earlier than Manchin. Perhaps that is a reflection of his more muted expressions of frustration, which included some grumbling in interviews, but no fiery speeches on the Senate floor. It probably doesn’t help that Manchin, unlike Toomey, is still actively trying to resurrect the bill