In his speech on Tuesday, the President singled out the gun lobby for obstructing meaningful gun safety legislation, which has had a long and lucrative relationship with members of Congress, and called on citizens to be just as impassioned, committed, and organized about passing reforms. Enter Igor Volsky, who has taken to his Twitter account to connect legislators' offers of "thoughts and prayers" after mass shootings with NRA contributions to their campaigns. Bob talks with Volsky, a contributing editor at Think Progress, about his project and the NRA's current messaging strategy.
"Hammer of Los" by John Zorn
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
OBAMA:The United States of America is not the only country on Earth with violent or dangerous people. We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency. It doesn't happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.
BROOKE: On Tuesday President Obama, finally made good on his repeated threats to try and take our guns away … at least that’s what some pundits, and would-be presidents, would have you believe.
CRUZ: The word that President Obama is once again going to abuse his power in order to seize our guns, sadly surprises nobody…
NBC: Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, part of his statement, “In America we believe in the Constitution, not confiscation, dictatorship, or kings and Obama’s newest assault on the second amendment is blatant, belligerent abuse of power.”
Moreover, a Fox News journalist declared that the President’s tears upon recalling the Newtown massacre , were of the crocodile variety
ANDREA TANTAROS:I would check that podium for a raw onion or some No More Tears. I mean it’s not really believable. “And the award goes to.” We are in award season.
But that’s immaterial, as well as moronic.What matters is, two days later he took his impassioned plea for action on what he called “common-sense gun safety measures” on the road in a televised town hall held in Fairfax, Virginia.
OBAMA: If we can combine gun safety with sensible background checks and other steps, we’re not going to end gun violence but we can lessen it.
BOB: In both of his appearances this week the President stressed the need for action from citizens on behalf of gun reform, but he didn’t shy away from giving credit for obstruction where he thought credit was due. Here he was on Tuesday:
OBAMA: The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage. (Applause)
BOB: The gun lobby and specifically its principal representative: the National Rifle Association. Whatever your views on the NRA, it’s certainly had a lucrative, relationship with many members of Congress for a very long time. Here’s a clip from a piece I reported for NPR’s All Things Considered back in 1994 when I was shadowing the late Sonny Bono on his first day in Congress:
VINTAGE BOB: But Bono is being taken seriously. He even had a visit from the National Rifle Association, a delegation of board members just stopping by to say, hey.
NRA MAN: We wish to impress upon him the importance of supporting the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms. Our job here is to make sure that he remembers who elected him into office.
BROOKE: That’s also Igor Volsky’s job, only he’s working to ensure that we remember as well. Volsky is a contributing editor to Think Progress. In the wake of recent shootings, he’s taken to Twitter, assiduously connecting the condolences of legislators to NRA cash.
BOB: For instance, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted: The senseless loss of innocent life in #SanBernardino defies explanation. Our thoughts are w/ the victims and their families...
BROOKE: Volsky tweeted: NRA dumped $922K into McConnell’s re-elect bid, so when it comes to preventing gun violence, all u get is this tweet
BOB: Igor Volsky, welcome to On the Media.
VOLSKY: Good to be here.
VOLSKY: Thanks for having me.
BOB: Some context first, if we can. Think Progress is non partisan, but one of the lefty, MSNBC, Salon dot com, The Nation, usual suspects of progressive thought, is it not?
VOLSKY: We like to think of ourselves as a progressive research blog that's affiliated for the Center for American Progress here in DC.
BOB: Okay I'll take that as a yes. Anyway, you weren't always on the gun beat. You actually covered health policy. And now you're all guns all the time, why?
VOLSKY: What really changed for me was Newtown Connecticut. The way that story broke and the way every single mass shooting has really unfolded from this press perspective. We know what the first story looks like, what the day after story looks like. And so of course when the San Bernardino shootings happened and you saw everybody following the same script including of course the Republican lawmakers who expressed their thoughts and their prayers, but do absolutely nothing, that for me was a real tipping point.
BOB: And you don't believe this is a coincidence, in fact, you noticed something amid all of these thoughts and prayers tweets. And pulled off one of the great Twitter exercises that I can recall on any subject ever.
VOLSKY: Well it turned out that all of the lawmakers who were tweeting their thoughts and prayers voted against expanding background checks in the aftermath of Newtown in 2013. And also of course received thousands of dollars from the National Rifle Association. So I just re tweeted every lawmaker who expressed their thoughts and prayers and said all they're gonna do is think and pray because the NRA pays them to do absolutely nothing else to bring down the rate of gun violence in America.
BOB: Now correlation isn't necessarily causation. But these people have not only not legislated but in many cases, stymied any kind of action that could even lead to gun control legislation. Does that mean that they've been essentially bought off or are there other explanations for the causation?
VOLSKY: There's certainly some lawmakers who believe very fervently that any kind of gun regulation is an infringement on the Second Amendment, which by the way is a very modern notion that originated in the 1980s. But they do believe that. And that of course is reinforced by the NRA in their communities and their constituents who may also subscribe to those views. But there are other lawmakers who in fact can be bought by the NRA or another interest group that says hey, if you don't hold this position not only will we not give you a direct contribution, but we'll also spend very heavily for your opponent. And so I think that the money that I've been pointing out really highlights the entire culture that the NRA creates and that's a culture of fear.
BOB: On the subject of correlations, an overwhelming number of Republicans on your Twitter target list. And very few democrats. Does this break down entirely along party lines?
VOLSKY: It does not. Senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota voted against the background check bill. There's also a couple of Democrats in the house, I believe. However, if you look at the general pattern of giving, it's overwhelmingly a Republican gift. And even Democrats who do their very best to try to steer clear of pissing off the NRA, people like former Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, are in a situation where they vote the right way, but the NRA still turns around and endorses their opponent, because it's about guns for the NRA, but it's also about maintaining power of not only the gun issue, but the whole host of issues that animate their membership.
BOB: Let me ask you about that, because while gun regulation and legislation have been at a standstill for I guess almost decades, the NRA itself is evolving beyond the issue of the second amendment into the culture wars writ large.
VOLSKY: I would just quarrel a little bit with the notion that gun regulation isn't evolving - it is evolving, on the state level: you did have a whole batch of states in the aftermath of some of these shootings - Colorado, Connecticut - that did tighten their state gun laws. It's just nothing's really happened on the federal front. And yes, the NRA isn't just about guns anymore, as you point out. It's also about God, and country, and patriotism. That's the frame within the gun debate is had. They have an entire host of tv programs, of web programs, that very smartly pull in the new demographic of Americans, not just the traditional supporters of the NRA who we may think of as older, whiter, but also now they're trying to appeal to young people through YouTube. they're trying to target women through all kinds of pink guns that they market very heavily - women centered shooting clubs. And to African Americans, by employing entertainers who appeal to that demographic. So they're certainly very interested in keeping their 4 million person membership alive and growing.
BOB: Let's get back to your Twitter stream. Which wasn't exactly news, it has long since been obvious that many legislators are in the pocket of the gun lobby. Yet this made a big noise! First of all, why? And secondly, if you were trying to plan some sort of grassroots uprising against the NRA, what would you prescribe?
VOLSKY: I'd argue it's happening right now. Certainly in the way that activists are organizing and are taking to the hill some of the survivors of gun violence whose stories are so powerful. I from time to time click on the tweets of lawmakers who are now saying things like Obama's executive actions are gonna undermine the second amendment, and what I see are everyday Americans with their own twitter accounts doing basically the same thing I did: asking those lawmakers how much money did you take from the NRA? Did the NRA tell you to say this? Because people aren't buying the fact that simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a gun dealer is some kind of infringement on the second amendment.
BOB: Igor, thank you very much.
VOLSKY: Thank you.
BOB: Igor Volsky is a contributing editor for Think Progress dot org.