CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- As the national conversation about the mass shooting in Arizona gets noisier and noisier, one advocacy group that has a ton at stake politically has kept mostly silent.
The National Rifle Association, whose mission is to protect gun rights that are now being questioned, put out a brief statement offering thoughts and prayers to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims in the shooting. But other than that, the group has remained on the sidelines. This morning, for instance, the NRA declined to appear on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," to debate a gun-control advocate, show host Chuck Todd told viewers.
At first glance, the NRA's messaging -- or lack of it - might seem an odd move in an age where rapid-response is so often the strategy. But if history is any indication, the group is playing this one just right, analysts said.
"This is their usual tactic at moments like this," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at University of Virginia. "They simply don't get into the debate. It's difficult to have a debate when you only have one side represented."
Rather than taking an aggressive defensive posture, the NRA seems to be hoping that the political winds that have shaped the gun-control debate for years remain in place. Only the most urban of Democrats have pushed for tighter gun-control laws in recent years. And only 44% of Americans favor stricter gun laws, continuing a steady decline from 1990 when 78% favored tighter rules, according to a Gallup poll released in November.
"In many ways, I think [the NRA is] well aware that if they do anything to promote their cause or defend their cause in the wake of this tragedy, they will come under serious scrutiny," said Adam Mendelsohn, a partner with Mercury, a political- and corporate-public-relations firm whose practices include crisis management and communications. "They recognize the politics are on their side and after a lot of years of fighting this fight, they recognize they don't need to engage in a gun-control fight coming out of this because, really, they can only lose ground in this situation."
The NRA did not respond to an interview request from Ad Age, but has told other news outlets that "at this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate."
To be sure, other recent mass shootings have led to some modest gun-control changes. For instance, in the wake of the 2007 slayings at Virginia Tech, President George W. Bush signed legislation enacting financial penalties on states that fail to provide records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which tracks people who are prohibited from obtaining firearms, including those "adjudicated as a mental defective." (The NRA supported the bill.)
The alleged Tucson shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, bought his gun legally at a Sportsman's Warehouse store and purchased bullets at Walmart, according to published reports. The shooting killed six people and injured 14.
Those facts have brought some attention to Sportsman's and Walmart. The Sportsman's chain on its website says it is "fully supporting the authorities investigating this senseless tragedy" but that it has been asked by law-enforcement officials to withhold further comment. Walmart did not respond to an interview request from Ad Age but said in a statement published on MSNBC.com that "we stand ready to provide any information or video surveillance footage we may have to investigators that can help them as they work to determine all the facts."
But much of the media coverage has focused on the "vitriol" in today's political climate and whether or not the heightened rhetoric played any role in the slayings. To some degree that has kept some of the attention from the gun-control debate and the NRA. Still, there have been some calls for tighter rules.
For instance, New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-New York -- the author of the background-check bill -- plans to pursue legislation to outlaw high-capacity bullet magazines, such as the one used in the Tucson incident. But she does not have money on her side. Gun-control lobbying groups spent just $180,000 in the first nine months of 2010 and employed nine lobbyists, compared with $3.9 million and 49 lobbyists for gun-rights advocates, including more than $2 million by the NRA, according to the OpenSecrets.org, a blog run by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations.
Mr. Sabato predicted nothing will happen legislatively. "In modern time, we don't pass gun-control legislation," he said. "The gun-control groups have a couple of great weeks then the old realities set in. You have to have the votes. You don't have the votes."
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