I’ve seen the gun lobby in action in Augusta. In the years 2000 and 2001, it took the genial and intelligent form of the late George Smith, then the executive director of Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Modest gun control bills – a commission to study handgun violence, or a law that would empower judges to confiscate firearms from people under temporary protection orders – would get a public hearing in Augusta. Advocates would deliver passionate testimony about common-sense limits that could save lives, and a majority on the committee would vote “ought to pass.”

George would be there at the hearing, but he might not even testify. He’d grab a member or two in the hall, but there were no threats made or finger pointing that I could see.

Still, when the bills came to the floor, you could see the effect. Member after member from both parties, armed with gun-lobby talking points about slippery slopes and constitutional rights, would stand up to speak. And the bills went down. Hard.

It was clear that George had done something, but what?

I was reminded of those days on Tuesday night watching President Biden’s remarks after an 18-year-old turned a semiautomatic rifle on 19 innocent fourth-graders and two teachers in an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.


In anguish, Biden demanded – “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”

I knew what he meant, but it felt like he was missing the point. The term “gun lobby” is useful shorthand – I used it myself in an editorial Thursday – but it doesn’t really explain the forces that prevent us from passing reasonable regulation on deadly weapons.

George, who died last year, would have been the first to tell you that he wasn’t some puppet-master in Augusta. He was just providing information – both to the people’s representatives and to his organization’s members around the state, who would let their lawmakers know they were watching.

The real power of “the gun lobby” did not come from campaign contributions, but communication. It was the bottom-up power that comes from organizing, not the top-down power of concentrated wealth distributed by the National Rifle Association.

Which makes last week’s events – if it’s possible – even more discouraging. The Robb Elementary mass murder is going to be added to the list of school shootings alongside Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland. Sometimes it will be a longer list, which includes mass shootings at movie theaters, concerts and houses of worship.

And in a month or in a year, I expect that it will still be perfectly legal for an alienated 18-year-old to walk out of a sporting goods store carrying a military-style, semiautomatic rifle equipped with high-capacity magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.


That’s because the gun lobby has the same kind of power in Washington that it does in Augusta. Yes, groups like the NRA contribute to campaigns, but their influence is more than money.

We hear that 80 percent of Americans believe you should have to pass a background check before you can buy a gun, but a universal background check bill cannot get past a Republican filibuster in the United States Senate. Why is that?

The polls tell you one thing, and, with their behavior, the politicians tell you something else. Enough office-holders are more afraid of the gun rights activists back home than the gun-control supporters, no matter how many there might be in each group.

There are single-issue voters on gun control, but they are all on the no-gun-control side. They tend to live in rural areas, which gives them outsize power in national politics because of the structure and rules of the U.S. Senate.

The political commentator Josh Marshall of “Talking Points Memo” got some blowback last week for referring to gun-rights hardliners as a “functional majority” that would stand in the way of any progress.

He wrote: “A vast swathe of the population wants things exactly how they are. No restrictions on guns at all.” The collateral damage that comes from periodic massacres is just not their problem.


He was accused of underplaying the power of gun industry spending to shape public opinion, and for being disrespectful to rural values, but he was right.

A shadowy gun lobby, housed in a glass office tower in New York or Washington, is a good villain for liberals who want to believe that most people think what we think. That’s why we keep pushing “common-sense” gun laws that nibble around the edges of the problem, and don’t understand why the other side refuses to compromise.

It’s less pleasant to think that our neighbors around the state don’t trust us and recognize what we are offering are half measures that won’t solve the problems that we say demand action. Since they figure we will come back for more after the next massacre, every tragedy makes them dig in deeper.

Lack of trust is the real gun lobby. And it just keeps getting more powerful all the time.

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