One of the crazier elements of the NRA's response to the Newtown massacre is its opposition to universal background checks, though recent polls show the measure is supported by 89 percent of all Americans, three quarters of NRA members, and — back in 1999, at least — the NRA itself. As Sen. Patrick Leahy alluded to during NRA vice-president Wayne LaPierre's testimony at Wednesday's Senate hearing, LaPierre told Congress following the Columbine High School massacre that the organization supported instant background checks at gun shows. A few weeks later, LaPierre told Fox News that the NRA supported a (subsequently defeated) Senate bill "that provides a check on every sale at every gun show, no loopholes at all."
As the Huffington Post reports, support for universal background checks wasn't just a throwaway line in LaPierre's Senate testimony, but "part of an advertising and public relations campaign that the NRA organized following the Columbine massacre to show it was sympathetic to changing gun laws." As part of the NRA's 1999 "Be Reasonable" campaign, it placed ads in papers including USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal that said:
We think it's reasonable to provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops. But what's unreasonable is how the proposed Lautenberg legislation ignores the 250,000 prohibited people, like felons, who've walked away from gun stores — instead of being prosecuted for a federal felony for trying to buy a gun.
On Thursday, Sandy Froman, a former president and current board member of the NRA told Anderson Cooper, "The NRA has changed its position and the reason it's changed its position is because the system doesn't work." The NRA says it wants to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by adding records of the mentally ill, and NRA President David Keene said on Thursday that, “The NICS system, as it exists and if it were cleaned up, is not much of a burden to people.” However, as Bloomberg reports, he added that it still shouldn't be applied universally or to private gun sales. "We are not willing to support measures we feel unduly burden innocent and law-abiding Americans, and on the other side do not have any real impact on the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Keene.
In his testimony earlier this week, LaPierre made a similar argument when asked if the NRA supports mandatory background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows:
We do not, because the fact is, the law right now is a failure the way it’s working. The fact is, you have 76,000-some people that have been denied under the present law. Only 44 were prosecuted. You’re letting them go. They’re walking the streets.
So even in its imperfect state, the NICS has prevented 76,000 dangerous and mentally ill people from buying guns. Yet, rather than pushing to improve and expand this effective system, now the NRA wants to keep loopholes in place. The NRA might want to take a second look at that "Be Reasonable" campaign.