On Sept. 1, 1970, Nevada Assemblymember Harry Reid won the Democratic primary election for lieutenant governor with 82 percent of the vote.
That landslide was expected, but Reid did not let up after his victory. Before the primary, there had been some talk about his being soft on gun ownership. So he moved quickly after his win to eliminate any doubt. His campaign put out a statement in which he attacked a federal gun control law, apparently the measure enacted in 1968 after the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
“I have been a consistent critic of the federal gun control law which has caused far more problems than it has remedied,” Reid said in the statement that was carried in a Reno newspaper on Sept. 14, 1970. “Every legitimate hunter who has sought to hunt in other states knows exactly what I am talking about. Since Nevada depends on tourism and hunting as a source of income, we have a major responsibility to keep federal red tape from hampering these activities.”
In those early years of his career, no one really questioned Reid’s stance on gun control, in part because there was a lot of hunting lore surrounding him. Toward the end of that campaign for lieutenant governor when it became clear the Democrats were going to do well in the election, Reid told Democratic candidate for governor Mike O’Callaghan that after the election they should get away and go hunting. O’Callaghan eyed his former student who would soon become first in the line of succession for the governorship and quipped, “I’m never going hunting with you.”
In those days the National Rifle Association (NRA) was on the fringes of politics, regarded as a group of zealots. After Reid was elected to the U.S. House in 1983 and then went to the Senate in 1987, Reid always got good reviews from the NRA.
Yet now, across the internet, there are frequent attacks on Reid over gun issues and on the NRA over its praise of Reid. For instance, while the Republican Tea Party Express was holding a protest at Reid’s hometown of Searchlight on March 27, Reid and NRA national official Wayne LaPierre (author of The Essential Second Amendment Guide) were on North Decatur Boulevard in Las Vegas dedicating a shooting park. LaPierre said the park “would not have opened without the work of Sen. Reid.” When that news got around, gunhawks on the web were disturbed.
“If it’s true, I will demand my lifetime [NRA] membership be returned,” wrote one anonymous post on the Free Republic site.
“Bill Manders on KKOH today said he has told the NRA to shove it over the ties with Harry Reid,” read another.
Some observers in both parties believe that those who are deeply opposed to Reid on other issues cannot quite believe that he has a strong pro-gun record and so they try to deny it.
But there are other factors. It may come as a surprise, but the NRA has become what passes for a moderate organization in gun rights circles. This has happened not because the NRA has changed its positions but because a more extreme group, Gun Owners of America, formed to compete with the NRA. In contrast to NRA’s good relations with Reid, the Virginia-based GOA has given Reid an F grade on his votes. That grade is at least higher than the F-minus given by GOA to John McCain during his presidential race (more recently dropped back to a C-minus).
GOA’s website is not very user-friendly or easily navigable, so it is difficult to determine the rationale for its rankings of members of Congress. In addition, GOA limits the information it provides—citing votes on bills, for instance, but failing to identify the bills themselves.
But the list of votes on which it evaluates senators is accessible and explains a good deal about its ranking of figures like McCain and Reid. It uses votes that can be considered a reach for gun issues. For instance, Reid lost points with GOA by voting to approve President Obama’s nomination of Harold Koh, former assistant secretary of state and dean of Yale Law School, to be legal advisor to the U.S. State Department.
In another instance, the Senate vote on the Democratic health care bill counted against Reid. GOA said the bill could allow gun ownership to be denied to those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Another vote that GOA described as a gun vote was Obama’s nomination of Cass Sunstein for a post in the White House Office of Management and Budget’s information and regulatory affairs office.
In other cases, GOA uses votes in which different constitutional issues are in conflict—federalism versus gun rights, for instance, as with a vote on whether Congress should override a District of Columbia city council ordinance, as Nevada Sen. John Ensign proposed to do.
GOA keeps a tight rein on the information it provides on its vote rankings, so that readers must depend on its sometimes misleading descriptions of legislation. In one instance, GOA objected to Reid’s position in a Feb. 13, 2009, vote on an unidentified bill that GOA called the “Anti-gun Bailout Bill.” When we tracked the measure down, it was not a bailout bill, it was House Resolution 1—the 2009 economic stimulus measure. (The federal bailouts were mentioned in the stimulus bill, in a provision requiring that banks receiving bailouts give hiring priority on stimulus projects to U.S. workers over foreign workers.)
GOA’s website explains it objected to votes for the economic stimulus because (1) “we would expect” that (2) if the stimulus bill was enacted (3) it would provide for loading medical records into computer databases, which (4) might lead to the use of psychiatric records to prevent people who have been treated by psychiatrists from getting guns. No basis was offered for this speculation except what the organization, without specifics, called its experience with veterans. The vote for the stimulus was used to downgrade rankings of numerous members of Congress, including Reid.
Reid declined substantive comment on GOA, saying that its zealotry on gun issues is designed to help it compete against the NRA, and he doesn’t want to get between them.
“The Gun Owners of America is a small organization,” he said. “They’re always trying to make the NRA look bad. I don’t get into that.”
By contrast with GOA’s militant stances on a broad range of issues only faintly related to guns, the equally militant NRA stays close to direct gun issues. In a statement, the group said, “It is important to note, however, that the NRA is a single issue organization and that when our ratings and endorsements are announced, they are based solely on a candidate’s support for, or opposition to, our Second Amendment rights. Other issues, as important as they may be to many people, do not and cannot play any role in those decisions.”
In that same statement, the organization said that Reid has been essential to its agenda: “It would be accurate to say that few, if any, of NRA’s legislative victories in Congress during the last six years would have occurred without his active support.”
This doesn’t sit all that well among some Nevada Democrats. At a party function in Idlewild Park last Saturday, one Democrat said, “He assumes we’ll tolerate his gun stuff because we have nowhere else to go. But things like that are part of the reason his party support is tepid.”
Another simply rolled her eyes and said, “Men!”