This week’s tragic shooting in San Bernardino will no doubt result in a sadly familiar Washington debate about the prospects — likely dreary — of new gun control legislation. Much of the back-and-forth will focus on the supposed stranglehold that the National Rifle Association holds over Congress. The group’s fundraising prowess and political power is real, but as this 2013 Center investigation by Alan Berlow revealed, it is somewhat misunderstood.
In the days leading up to last month’s crucial votes on the most significant gun control legislation to come before the Senate in nearly two decades, polls showed that about 90 percent of Americans supported background checks for all gun purchases. But when the clerk called the roll, the centerpiece amendment — requiring background checks for firearm sales at gun shows, through classified ads and on the Internet — got just 54 “yea’s,” six votes short of the 60 vote super-majority required.
Just four months after Adam Lanza killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and President Obama promised tougher gun laws, the vote proved to be the latest in a long-running string of victories for gun rights activists, the firearms industry and particularly the National Rifle Association, the nation’s pre-eminent gun lobby.
The power of the gun lobby is rooted in multiple factors, among them the pure passion and single-mindedness of many gun owners, the NRA’s demonstrated ability to motivate its most fervent members to swarm their elected representatives, and the lobby’s ability to get out the vote on election day. But there’s little doubt that money, the political power it represents, and the fear of that power and money, which the NRA deftly exploits, have a lot to do with the group’s ability to repeatedly control the national debate about guns. Whether that fear is justified is an intriguing question —but it clearly exists. That has, perhaps, never been clearer than it was last month on Capitol Hill.
Big money, big gaps
For starters, the dollars and cents disparities are nothing short of staggering. The NRA and its allies in the firearms industries, along with the even more militant Gun Owners of America, have together poured nearly $81 million into House, Senate and presidential races since the 2000 election cycle, according to federal disclosures and a Center for Responsive Politics analysis done for the Center for Public Integrity.
The bulk of the cash — more than $46 million — has come in the form of independent expenditures made since court decisions in 2010 (especially the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) essentially redefined electoral politics. Those decisions allowed individuals, corporations, associations and unions to make unlimited “independent” expenditures aimed at electing or defeating candidates in federal elections, so long as the expenditures were not “coordinated” with a candidate’s actual campaign.
“Members of Congress pay attention to these numbers, and they know that in the last election cycle the NRA spent $18.6 million on various campaigns,” says Lee Drutman, who has studied the role of gun money in politics for the Sunlight Foundation. “They know what the NRA is capable of doing and the kinds of ads they’re capable of running, and especially if you’re someone facing a close election, you don’t want hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of dollars in advertising to go against you.”
In the decade before Citizens United, from the 2000 election cycle to 2010, much of the money was donated directly to campaigns. During that period, pro-gun interests so thoroughly dominated electoral spending as to render gun control forces all but irrelevant, having directly donated fully 28 times the amount of their opponents in House and Senate races, $7 million on the pro-gun side compared to $245,000 on the gun control side. Of the total expended by gun rights interests, fully $3.9 million was delivered by the NRA. Since the Citizens United decision, gun control interests have gained new financial muscle, thanks largely to independent expenditures totaling at least $11.6 million by activist New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups tied to Bloomberg — nothing to sneeze at, but still just a fraction of that $46 million in post-2010 gun rights money.
The full story can be found at Gun lobby’s money and power still holds sway over Congress.
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Note from the Center-an update from our CEO on the Panama Papers from Public Integrity’s ICIJ unit