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TV Review: Frontline’s ‘Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA’

The National Rifle Assn.’s political clout is so sweeping — and numerically disproportionate — that it’s unusual to realize its power is largely taken for granted, as if it were always thus. Frontline addresses that history, as well as the group’s combative modern posture, in “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA,” an hourlong documentary perhaps especially important for Hollywood, given how surrogates for showbiz and the gun lobby inevitably end up pointing fingers at each other in the face of mass shootings. The refresher course is necessary, though nothing here provides any clues about shaking the NRA’s stranglehold on politics, where “No retreat” is the mantra.

As this latest fine and even-handed production from Kirk Documentary Group makes clear, the NRA was a relatively benign, not terribly political organization until 1977, when then-dissident members seized control of the group, adopting a hardline stance against virtually any form of gun-control regulation.

The seminal moment, however, came in 1999, when the NRA vigorously pushed back against the public’s understandable horror over the school shooting at Columbine High School, with then-front-man Charlton Heston famously brandishing a rifle and dramatically intoning, “From my cold, dead hands.”

The 2000 election followed, with NRA muscle contributing to the razor-thin margin that denied (with a little help from the Supreme Court) the presidency to Al Gore, who as Vice President had cast the tie-breaking vote on a piece of relatively modest gun legislation.

Among those interviewed, perhaps the most salient point that keeps emerging is the NRA’s savvy, now under the leadership of Wayne LaPierre, in remaining vigilant and steadfast even in the wake of new tragedies, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary or of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, realizing that while the group’s commitment to the sanctity of firearms is unwavering, the public is apt to get distracted in its opposition, and move on.

LaPierre, moreover, must deal with his own unyielding wing within the NRA, a former spokesman notes, which might explain his reluctance to seek compromise in any way — a stance that has if anything metastasized during the Obama administration, due to the “They’re coming for our guns” paranoia his presidency has unleashed on the political fringes.

No one currently associated with the NRA would speak to the producers, and indeed, why should they? Because in the ongoing battle over gun control, it’s pretty obvious who’s winning. Small wonder proponents of stricter gun laws have recently begun pursuing state ballot initiatives, as the New York Times reported, seeking to mount an end run around the NRA’s well-fortified position in Washington.

For now, though, as “Gunned Down” illustrates, the organization’s leaders seem to recognize they come to that battle armed with the ultimate ammunition: Tons of money, a cowering political class, and a population that might embrace reasonable limitations on gun ownership in theory but lacks the necessary determination to make it happen once the smoke clears.

TV Review: Frontline's 'Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA'

(Documentary; PBS, Tue. Jan. 6, 10 p.m.)

Production: Produced by the Kirk Documentary Group and Frontline.

Crew: Executive producer, David Fanning; deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath; producers, Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore, Mike Wiser; director, Kirk; writers, Kirk, Wiser; reporter, Jim Gilmore. 60 MIN.

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