Chuck Schumer likes to shoot guns. "It’s a very enjoyable bonding experience," he says, shuttling between campaign finance committee meetings in Washington. He learned to shoot in summer camp ("I won some NRA sharp-shooter badges at the rifle range when I was, like, 12.") and, more recently, went pheasant-shooting with Ben Nelson, his fellow Democratic senator of Nebraska, hiding out in blinds. "I was scared. I said, 'What if I miss? What if I do something wrong?'" Above all, the hunt changed his mind on guns. It reminded him of his Brooklyn boyhood. "I got to appreciate how in large parts of the country [hunting] has the same sort of significance as our basketball park in Marine Park."
There are of course some issues with comparing shooting hoops on the playground and shooting bullets at animals. But Schumer’s latest embrace of gun culture is one way he thinks the Democrats and legislators in Congress could pass any meaningful gun-control bills in the wake of the Newtown elementary-school tragedy — that, in order to pass laws that prohibit guns, the Dems have to first show some love to gun lovers.
As a congressman in 1994, Schumer managed to co-sponsor and help pass the Brady Bill and assault-weapons ban. Back then, the primary fears were high crime rates and gangbangers, and "the broad middle was mobilized," Schumer says. The ban barely passed (216–214) and that was with endless compromises and loopholes. And after that, not much for two decades. Activists have blamed Democratic leaders like Schumer, who served for four years as the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chairman, for dodging the bullet on gun control and cowering to behemoths like the NRA for fear of losing seats.
"The leadership hasn’t pushed for it," says Brian Malte, spokesman of the Brady Campaign, which lobbies legislators to support tougher gun laws. "The perception is that if you go against the NRA, they are going to swoop down and take you out of office." That perception is wrong, Malte says, pointing out that the NRA had a terrible election cycle in 2012, losing eight of nine Senate races — and, of course, the presidency, raising questions as to whether it had ever been as powerful or unified as it appeared. A survey last summer, funded by anti-gun forces, also found that a majority of their constituents actually support many forms of gun control. The Democrats should no longer fear the NRA, Malte says, claiming the $300 million institution has become a "paper tiger" on the national stage.
In the modern age of super-PACs and instantaneous media, the NRA also appears out of touch. After waiting days to respond to the Newtown massacre, the group called a press conference in Washington this morning, promising to offer “contributions” to the debate about school shootings. But the press conference instead devolved into a lecture over gun-free zones and violent video games.
Schumer balks at the idea the NRA has weakened. “The reality is they’re still very strong, and we delude ourselves into thinking they’re not, okay.” He cites an example. “When I go to street fairs on Long Island, I will always get two or three people who say to me, ‘I don’t like you. You’re the author of the Brady law. You’re anti-gun.' I will never have anyone say to me, ‘I’m glad you’re for gun control.’” The reason, he thinks, is because “there are far more people in America who put pro-gun first on their list than put pro-gun-control on their list.” That’s why, over the years, he’s politically come to embrace guns — to convince gun lovers to embrace tougher gun-control laws.
“Look, I’m tired of us making speeches and not getting anything done,” Schumer says. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. In the late eighties, in the late nineties. There was almost a coup in the NRA! Before that, it was like the AAA.” Schumer does not sound optimistic about passing gun-control bills with real teeth. He still believes the NRA is too powerful a force to convince enough legislators to pass a serious gun-control bill. “We might surprise ourselves,” he says. “I think it’s going to be hard.”