The National Rifle Association's influence in politics has become a polarizing issue as the 2014 midterm elections approaches. On Wednesday night's Hardball, Chris Matthews spoke with msnbc's Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough about the choice the Republican Party must make about whether to stand with or against the NRA as pressure mounts on lawmakers to tighten gun control.
"The extremism that has taken over my party on certain issues that has us running down rabbit trails neither Ronald Reagan or William F. Buckley would ever run down is what's causing this party problems," Scarborough said. "I'm a very conservative guy, but I think my party has gone in a direction that's deeply disturbing to me on a lot of issues, especially this one right now."
Scarborough, who served in Congress from 1995 to 2001 as a Republican representative from Florida, said the NRA's push to protect the use of assault weapons and high capacity magazines has nothing to do with conservative politics, and called it a "radical" reaction to paranoia about the government. "There's nothing conservative about this point of view, that survivalists believe they need these weapons to actually turn them on their own government."
He added that gun control has long been seen as a "symbolic issue" for politicians playing toward voters deeply concerned with Second Amendment rights. But after the recent massacres in Newtown and Aurora, "it's not about symbolism anymore," Scarborough said. "This is not the party of Ronald Reagan—who, by the way, supported an assault weapons ban and helped pass it in 1994 by leaning on Republican members," Scarborough added. "This is about the party of Wayne La Pierre. And Republicans need to decide: are they going to be the party of Wayne LaPierre, who's upside down in approval ratings along with the NRA, or the party of Ronald Reagan, who won 49 states in 1984?"
As Republican lawmakers in swing districts work to hold onto their leadership positions in 2014, Scarborough said the millions of dollars that will be raised from the efforts of people such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' new PAC will make a noticeable difference, as more and more people advocate for sensible gun control the way Reagan did in '94.
The smart political move, Scarborough argued, would be for Republicans to move away from the NRA's failing leadership and return to pushing fiscal conservatism in their platform—something that Scarborough himself said he's considered.
"I can tell you something: in 2014, in my district in northwest Florida—a district Jerry Falwell called the most conservative in America—I have no doubt in the world this would be the smart political move for me to run as a fiscally conservative Republican, a pro-life Republican, who has said 'enough' to survivalists and 'enough' to extremists," he said. "The Second Amendment is about protecting our homes, it's about hunting with our friends and family members; it's not about military-styled assault weapons that ended up killing six- and seven-year-old kids in Newtown."