SOMETHING HAPPENED last week that sent reporters across the country scurrying for the nearest gun shop. A ban on certain assault weapons, signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, expired on Monday.

Though Bush said he wanted to see the ban extended, there was only coy silence from the White House and the Republican-dominated Congress as the sunset date approached. As the clamor over the expiration from gun control activists grew louder, and John Kerry accused President Bush of being in the NRA's pocket, journalists started salivating over the story they expected to find: "NRA Victory: Wackos Really Excited About Buying Uzis."

What at least a handful of reporters found instead was Mark Thorne, a Bush voter and self-described "peon" at Gilbert's Small Arms Range in Lorton, Virginia. One of the nearest vendors of firearms to downtown Washington, Gilbert's was a popular destination with the fourth estate this week. Gilbert's sells NRA memberships and, "from time to time," guns whose manufacture has been banned for ten years. According to Thorne, there is "nearly always" something in stock that, with a small modification like a collapsible stock or a flash suppressor, would have been illegal under the ban.

Thorne says he finds all the hoopla around the ban's expiration silly. "The only real change we expect is for the cost of pre-ban guns to go down." This, he explains, is because there's nothing anyone can buy now that he couldn't buy a month ago. The difference is that now a short list of "assault weapons" can be manufactured in the United States, whereas before they could only be resold.

In short, on Monday it was business as usual for most American gun vendors. Newspapers around the country ended up with headlines like: "Gun Sellers Say Ban Never Really Made Much Difference Anyway."

But those pieces missed the real significance of the day. Even if the assault weapons ban didn't change the situation on the ground for Thorne and his ilk, it's been a metaphorical thorn in the side of the NRA for 10 years. Its uneventful sunsetting is the capstone of an almost absurdly successful four years for the National Rifle Association.

Chris Cox, head of the NRA's legislative lobbying arm, remembers when things weren't so rosy. Four years ago, recalls the young, earnest, and relentlessly on-message Cox, the NRA was dealing with "having the gun control movement basically run out of the White House," where a "sinister plot to circumnavigate the legislature" was afoot. "Those," he sighs, "were clearly the dark days."

But the sun broke through the clouds in 2000, and it's been beach weather for gun nuts ever since. In 2002 "we won 82 percent of our state races, we won 84 percent of Senate races and 94 percent of House races." Because of that, "a lot of candidates started showing up at skeet ranges, and showing ads with a shotgun thrown over their shoulder." Cox credits the NRA's success in 2000 and 2002 with scaring certain candidates so that "they really start to try to run from their anti-gun and anti-Second Amendment past."

And sure enough, two weeks ago Kerry made headlines for graciously accepting a union-made shotgun from the United Mine Workers of America at a campaign stop in Racine, West Virginia. "I thank you for the gift," said Kerry, "but I can't take it to the debate with me." Kerry has also been known to distribute pictures of himself holding a shotgun, to describe himself as "a gun owner," and to speak fondly of hunting trips he went on at age 12.

In March, speaking on a bill that would elicit his first vote in the Senate that year, Kerry told this story:

It's interesting that a few months ago I was actually hunting in Iowa. And I was hunting with a sheriff, and with some of his deputies. And as we walked through the field with dogs hunting pheasant, he pointed to a house in back of me, a house they had raided only a few weeks earlier, where, where meth and crack were being sold. And, right beside the bed in the morning when they went in to arrest this criminal--alleged criminal--there was an assault weapon on the floor lying there beside that individual. That sheriff and others across this country do not believe we should be selling these weapons.

This sprint-to-the-center phenomenon reaches the "height of its hypocrisy in John Kerry," says Cox, while at the same time it is a testament to the NRA's influence. Kerry's 20-year Senate record contains "over 50 votes in opposition to the Second Amendment and to hunting." In a painfully cute turn of phrase, Cox notes that Kerry is "trying to camouflage his voting record." Kerry has an "F" rating from the NRA. But his perfect record isn't just a partisan fiction--he also has a 100 percent approval rating from the Brady Campaign, and a 100 percent rating from anti-hunting absolutists at PETA.

And true to his record, in Pennsylvania last week--where legend has it that on the first day of hunting season enough of the state's 1 million hunters emerge to form a body of armed men larger than any army in the world--Kerry lit into Bush. Bush, he said, "never asked the Congress to pass [a renewal of the ban], never pushed the Congress to pass it, never stood up, caves in to the NRA, gives in to the special interests, and America's streets will not be as safe because of the choice that George Bush is making." He has also said that Bush is making "the job of terrorists easier and . . . the job of America's police officers harder." A recent swing puts Bush up 3 to 4 points in the state.

Kerry voted on another gun bill this month, and this time his side won. It was the NRA's only significant defeat this year. Designed to stifle lawsuits against gun manufacturers whose products have been used to commit crimes, the bill passed in the House by a 2-1 margin but was shot down (sorry) in the Senate at the last minute by NRA backers when amendments reviving the assault weapons ban were tacked onto it.

The NRA has gained a lot of ground since those "dark days." Pilots can now carry guns into the cockpit; the restrictions on gun merchants have been eased; the assault weapons ban has expired; state legislatures have expanded the right to carry, reinforced protections for shooting ranges, and passed state limits on lawsuits against gun manufacturers; more federal hunting lands have opened up; and, perhaps most impressive, the State Department put a firm kibosh on the United Nations' efforts to effect an international ban on certain firearms. Or, as Cox puts it, "The Bush administration, given their correct interpretation of the Second Amendment, sent representatives to convey the message 'Keep your hands off.'"

This list is indeed impressive. Yet these accomplishments pale beside the remarkable fact that John Kerry, a candidate for the presidency with a substantial anti-gun record, has gone out of his way to be photographed holding a large gun and to reminisce for the record about hunting trips. Even as he consistently votes to defeat the NRA legislatively, he knows that he can't afford not to suck up. Four years ago, the NRA couldn't have foreseen such a thing in its wildest fantasies.

The reporters who trekked from Washington to Lorton the other day hoping to get a story out of Gilbert's Small Arms Range were looking in the wrong place, so they missed the real news. It was unfolding back on Capitol Hill--the latest chapter of the most fantastic fairy tale success story in recent memory. And the person who should be the most nervous about whether this fairy tale ends with a "happily ever after" is John Kerry. Right after the assault weapons ban expired, the NRA formally endorsed George W. Bush--and it's on one heck of a winning streak.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard and a former member of the Yale Rifle Team.

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