published Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Gun lobby funds flow into greater Chattanooga area elections


by Chris Carroll
Bob Corker, from left, Lamar Alexander
Bob Corker, from left, Lamar Alexander

NRA HELP

Since 2002, the National Rifle Association has given more than $109,000 to campaigns for five area Republicans.

• Lamar Alexander -- $18,269

• Bob Corker -- $77,468

• Scott DesJarlais -- $4,000

• Chuck Fleischmann -- $3,000

• Tom Graves -- $6,650

Sources: Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics

A stream of political ammunition from the pro-gun lobby accompanies — and perhaps informs — local congressional lawmakers' resistance to changing weapons policy in the wake of several mass shootings in America.

Beyond $109,000 in a decade of contributions to five area Republicans, the powerful National Rifle Association has endorsed favored lawmakers here, providing valuable fodder for campaign ads and websites.

Around here, an "A" from the NRA keeps political trouble away; the local delegation consistently makes the grade.

The NRA doesn't endorse President Barack Obama's plans to restrict access to guns, so it's safe to assume Obama was addressing Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia lawmakers, among others, at a news conference last week: "We're going to need voices in those areas, in those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong, to speak up and to say this is important. It can't just be the usual suspects."

But based on their statements, voting records and campaign contributions, Tennessee Valley Republican lawmakers aren't likely to become unusual suspects anytime soon.

Even the massacre in Newtown, Conn., didn't shake the commitment to a key belief held by Republicans representing the Volunteer and Peach States. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleisch-mann verbalized its essence last week in a terse statement issued hours after Obama introduced a sweeping agenda to curb gun violence.

"The horrific event in Newtown was heartbreaking, and protecting our children must be at the top of the priority list as a nation," the Ooltewah Republican said. "However, I will not support any measure that infringes on our Second Amendment rights."

It's possible Fleisch-mann's views mesh with the majority of Americans. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, more Americans said parental issues, mental health care and violent video games were bigger contributors than access to guns in recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colo.; Blacksburg, Va.; Newtown; and other communities that at one time weren't synonymous with such violence.

But the president, reacting to issues he never anticipated and barely mentioned during his re-election bid, has bucked the polls and made gun control the inaugural fight of a second term that begins Monday. Among other measures, congressional approval will be required for Obama's requests to require background checks on all gun sales, prohibit armor-piercing bullets and reinstate a ban on high-grade, military-style weapons.

Closer to home, Volunteer State residents are more likely to be victims of a violent gun crime than in any other state in the nation, according to a 2011 Tennessean analysis of FBI statistics. And since January 2011, 40 of 51 Chattanooga's homicide victims have died of gunshot wounds.

"Sandy Hook is a situation where we have entered a different time," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said Friday. "I am encouraging my friends in Congress to avoid the knee-jerk reactions, as easy as it might be. Don't just brush it off and say we're not going to talk about that."

Records show he's unlikely to get his wish.

Corker

Building his 2006 Senate campaign partly based on his efforts to reduce crime as Chattanooga mayor, Bob Corker accepted thousands from the NRA.

Beyond a $4,950 campaign donation, the NRA spent $62,774 on independent expenditures for Corker, according to records maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. More than half came when Corker needed it most -- mid-October, when the polls showed a tight race between him and former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

"I understand that criminals cause crime," Corker said during the campaign. "Congressman Ford thinks guns cause crime."

At least $30,000 in postcard mailers was financed by the NRA on Oct. 19-20, Federal Election Commission records show. The election that year was on Nov. 7.

In Corker's re-election endorsement six years later, the NRA cited his confirmation votes against "anti-Second Amendment Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan." It also applauded Corker's "letters opposing any international treaty ... that would impose restrictions on American gun owners."

Hours after Obama's legislative proposals, Corker questioned whether "the most effective measures for combating violence in our society will come from Washington."

Alexander

Corker's Senate colleague, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the same thing shortly after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary said: "This will not be stopped by more laws coming out of Washington."

Long before the NRA sprinkled $10,000 on his 2008 Senate re-election bid, Alexander prided himself on aligning with law-abiding shooters.

In 2002, when Alexander attempted to win a Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Fred Thompson, a political foe said Alexander favored banning assault weapons.

A campaign spokesman quickly retorted that Alexander, in fact, has "consistently supported Second Amendment rights and hunts with a semi-automatic shotgun, too."

That attitude has extended to the policies Alexander has pushed in the Senate, where he supported the repeal of the assault weapons ban that Obama is trying to reinstate.

In 2007, Alexander and Corker co-sponsored a bill that would have repealed Washington, D.C.'s semi-automatic weapon ban and made it easier to obtain handgun ammunition there. Two years later, the duo voted to allow Amtrak passengers to transport firearms in their checked baggage.

Alexander's main target after Sandy Hook? Video games. After promising to oppose "any proposal that violates the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms," Alexander pledged to "examine the impact of violent video games that enable individuals, especially children, to practice killing."

In the House

Local congressmen are much like the senators across the way on Capitol Hill.

During the tight 2012 Republican primary that led to his re-election, Fleisch-mann ran an ad called "The Fighter" that described the congressman as "an NRA member" and a "strong defender of our Second Amendment rights."

"Only Chuck is endorsed by the National Rifle Association," a deep-voiced narrator concluded.

Meanwhile, the NRA backed U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais at the same time news reports showed the physician-turned-congressman had sex with a patient and asked her to get an abortion 10 years ago.

On Oct. 26, making no mention of the controversy that had shaken the 4th District two weeks earlier, the NRA praised DesJarlais and bashed his Democratic opponent for voting against a Tennessee state Senate bill that allows handgun carry permit holders to carry firearms in restaurants.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a North Georgia Republican, also has benefited from NRA contributions since his political career began in 2010.

The local trio voted for the National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act, which would nationalize a program for people with handgun permits to carry their weapons in most states. Fleischmann touted his vote for the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, which removed restrictions on hunting on public lands.

"Unfortunately," DesJarlais wrote last week, "so far it seems that the administration is more focused on attacking our Second Amendment rights than truly addressing the underlying causes of gun violence."

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