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.
Among the 46 senators who voted to prevent any expansion of background checks, 43 have received help — either direct campaign contributions or independent expenditures — from pro-gun interests since 2000; in aggregate about $8.5 million. NRA expenditures ranged anywhere from a $95 contribution in one race to more than $2.6 million spent on the 2010 election of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. A total of 38 of those senators have gotten $15,000 or more in overall NRA help since 2000. Among the leaders: Ron Johnson, R-Wis., $1.2 million, Rob Portman R-Ohio, $1.35 million, Richard Burr, R-N.C., $852,000, John Thune, R-S.D., $717,000, and Saxby Chambliss R-Ga., $355,000. In several races, gun rights groups spent independent money both for one candidate and against his opponent (see chart). Forty-one of the 46 who voted with gun rights groups against expanded background checks were Republican.
Five Democrats also voted against the background check amendment, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did so to preserve his right under the Senate's arcane rules to bring the measure up again. Reid, who has a B rating from the NRA, has benefited from $30,200 from gun rights groups since 2000, including $18,400 from the NRA. The other four Democrats who bucked their party and voted with the NRA, have benefited from a mere $30,830 in total funding from gun rights groups since 2000. Max Baucus of Montana (NRA A+) was the beneficiary of $28,830 while Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (NRA C-) got $2,000. Mark Begich of Alaska (NRA A) and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (NRA A) have received no money from gun rights groups.
As for the 54 senators who voted in favor of expanding background checks, at least 18 of them have also benefited from gun rights group help since 2000. By far the largest chunk — $1.7 million — benefited a single NRA "defector," Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., the co-author of the background check amendment. The money those 54 have received since 2000 from gun control groups totals just $608,827.
Mayor Mike and his forces
Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006, is a relatively new player in the gun debate but apparently wants to level the playing field. With a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at about $27 billion, he has taken on the issue with great deliberation, organizing political allies, financing sophisticated research and, more recently, spending sizable amounts of his own money on pro-gun control television ads and elections. Prior to the most recent Senate votes Bloomberg said he would spend $12 million on issue ads aimed at 13 key senators, only four of whom ended up supporting his position. He has reportedly made a six-figure donation to Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group run by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband Mark Kelly, which financed television ads encouraging senators to vote for tougher background checks. And Mayors Against Illegal Guns is contemplating an ad campaign to make an example of Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor because of his vote against the background check proposal.
Most of Bloomberg's campaign money so far has gone to House races; his Independence USA PAC, a super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited money, has spent more than $11 million on six such races, mostly in 2012, with victories in half. In February, the PAC scored a major victory when it spent $2.8 million in Illinois to defeat NRA-endorsed former Rep. Deborah Halvorson and elect Robin Kelly, both Democrats, in a race to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Halvorson had an "A" rating from the NRA during her one term in Congress. Independence USA PAC also scored a victory in California where it spent $3.3 million to defeat an NRA A-rated Republican, Joe Baca, for a House seat; and it helped unseat A-rated and NRA-endorsed Republican Ann Marie Buerkle in New York. In Orlando, Fla., Bloomberg's super PAC spent $2 million in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Republican Daniel Webster. Webster had an A rating from the NRA, which endorsed his candidacy. His opponent, Val Demings, was rated F. In Illinois, Bloomberg spent nearly $1 million in a failed bid to keep Republican Robert Dold (NRA rating of D) in the House. Dold lost by less than 3000 votes. Bloomberg has also spent nearly $60,000 of his own money on 16 Senate candidates since 2007, and Bloomberg also contributed $500,000 to a political action committee supporting the 2012 Senate election of Maine Independent Angus King.
Bloomberg has said he's prepared to tap his personal fortune to support gun control — or what he prefers to call "anti-crime" — candidates and defeat those aligned with the NRA. And he recently announced that the mayors' group will publish its own NRA-style ratings of senators on the gun issue. He hasn't said how much he's willing to spend, but if the races he's gotten involved in so far are any indication, it's going to be a lot. Stefan Friedman, the spokesman for Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC, said the NRA has had "a wide open playing field for decades" and that's no longer the case. "The Mayor's been relatively clear in the wake of last [month's] decisions in Washington and in other comments that this is an issue he cares passionately about." So far, Bloomerg's Independence USA PAC may only be batting 50 percent, but no one seriously doubts that a few million dollars thrown at a race for a House seat or a state legislative contest could have a huge effect. If Bloomberg is serious about staying in this game, he will undoubtedly make a difference. Says NRA President David Keene, "We can't outspend Bloomberg."
That remains to be seen. But a closer look at the background check vote — and NRA influence generally — reveals that there's more at play than just cash. A lot more. The backgrounds and histories of the two sponsors of the background check amendment — Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican — illustrate some of those complexities.
Both Manchin and Toomey have "A" ratings from the NRA — or at least they did until last month. Both represent states with large numbers of gun owners. Pennsylvania has more NRA members than any other state, and sells more hunting licenses each year (2.5 million in 2012) than any state except Wisconsin. And Toomey has been the Senate's leading beneficiary of NRA largesse. In 2010 the NRA spent more than $1.79 million to elect him and an additional $1.15 million on negative advertising to defeat his Democratic opponent Joe Sestak Jr. Thanks in part to those court decisions that loosened campaign finance limits, the nearly $3 million the NRA spent on the Toomey race was more than three times the total amount spent by the NRA for all of Toomey's Senate colleagues combined between 2000 and 2010.
Asked about its spending on Toomey — the most the NRA has ever spent on any candidate — NRA President Keene joked, "It just shows what money can do for you." The reality, however, as Keene acknowledged, is that the NRA's spending on that particular race — in which Toomey spent a total of $17 million against his opponent's $12 million — may have very well made a critical difference. Toomey won by only two percent of the vote.
But when it came to Toomey's vote on expanded background checks, other factors were at play. "The Manchin-Toomey proposal," says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, "is very similar to a Pennsylvania law which was approved by a legislature that was Republican controlled, and signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Ridge with the support of the NRA." According to Madonna, Pennsylvania's expanded background checks, first approved in 1995 and amended in 1998, were non-controversial.
Defending his proposal on the Senate floor, Toomey was careful to affirm his pro-gun credentials, insisting that "there is absolutely no way that this can be construed as an infringement on Second Amendment rights." He argued that his proposal was a modest effort "to make it a little bit more difficult for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to purchase handguns." Toomey noted that under current Pennsylvania law, "anyone who buys a handgun anywhere at any time has a background check." Having lived with such checks for more than a decade, Toomey apparently agrees with Madonna that they have been a non-issue for most of his constituents.
Nevertheless, the history of the background check issue still speaks to the power of the NRA. The organization knows it can't win every race or every vote. But it can turn what was once a total non-issue — expanded background checks — into a matter of existential concern for senators. Making that case at the national level was particularly audacious because the NRA not only endorsed background checks for Pennsylvania back in 1995, in 1999 it supported them for the nation at large. Testifying before Congress following the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre testified that "it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone."
Asked about the contradiction at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January, LaPierre equivocated, but said the NRA believes the current law is not being enforced and therefore should not be expanded. "I think the National Instant [Criminal Background] Check System the way it's working now is a failure because this administration is not prosecuting the people that they catch" when they fail a background check.
A multi-pronged approach
Whatever the reasoning, clearly the NRA's gifts were not a key factor for Toomey in deciding to sponsor the background check amendment. A total of 14 other senators who have benefited from gun lobby money also supported his amendment. On the other hand, three senators who never received a single dollar from gun rights interests — Begich and Heitkamp, the two Democrats mentioned earlier, as well as Republican Dan Coats of Indiana — nonetheless voted against expanded background checks last month. Overall, at least 60 of the Senate's 100 members have benefited from at least $1,000 from the gun lobby during their careers.
Of course the background check amendment was not the only gun control proposal NRA supporters helped defeat. Senators also voted down a ban on assault weapons (40-60), a limit on large capacity magazines (46-54), and what might have seemed a thoroughly noncontroversial measure to make gun trafficking a crime (58-42). On top of that, they nearly passed (57-43) what is probably the NRA's top legislative priority, a "reciprocity" measure that would have allowed citizens holding concealed weapons permits from any state to legally carry them in any other state that allows for concealed carry, even those with much tougher rules.
NRA President Keene says claims that his organization simply buys votes with campaign contributions completely misunderstand the way the lobby works. The NRA, he says, is active in every state on a wide range of gun issues, and uses a broad range of tactics. "In a typical state we represent 10 percent of the persuadable Second Amendment voters" on any given gun issue, Keene says. Those voters, he says, include Democrats, independents and union members who are not only passionate about gun rights, but who rely on NRA ratings of members and endorsements of candidates at the ballot box. Keene says these gun owners are willing to pick up a phone and make a call when asked and cited one senator who he said got 5,000 phone calls opposing expanded background checks prior to the Senate vote. "It isn't the money but the endorsements" that motivate lawmakers, Keene said. And those endorsements come from voting the NRA line.
Among the 42 Republicans who voted against stronger background checks, 40 are rated A or A+ by the NRA, meaning they virtually always vote with the NRA. Among the 41 Democrats who voted in favor of stronger background checks, 35 received ratings of D or F from the gun organization.
Gregg Lee Carter, a professor of sociology at Bryant College in Rhode Island and the editor of Guns in American Society, generally agrees with Keene's view on the role of money, although he states the case differently. "The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it's how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail 'em, they call 'em, they fax 'em, they show up at meetings. The typical person who is for gun control is very different from the [pro-gun] person calling you or being right there, being an annoyance, hassling you personally. They're much more activist than the other side and that's what really produces their gains."
Yet when it comes to campaign contributions, Carter says that the amount contributed by the NRA is most often a minuscule percentage of a House or Senate candidate's overall campaign budget. "Money is important," he says, "but that's not what it's really about."
It is difficult to say with any precision how often lawmakers are swayed by the gun lobby's money or its endorsements. But there's no question some fear the NRA's ability to make their lives miserable. Suffice to say that at least two Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 and voted with the NRA against tighter background checks — Begich of Alaska and Pryor of Arkansas — were probably unwilling to test their luck.
There are 26 senators up for reelection in 2014. Since none of these lawmakers have run since the Citizens United decision, the amounts they've received from both sides have been modest. In reality, the number of those who are actually vulnerable to pressure from either pro- or anti-gun money and lobbying is probably relatively small, and neither the NRA nor Bloomberg can be expected to throw large amounts of money at either Senate or House races where they have little chance of winning. What makes an incumbent fearful of pressure on gun issues is an inexact science, but a recent analysis by New York Times data guru Nate Silver suggests that a key factor to look at is the rate of gun ownership in a given state. Silver found that among the 26 senators up next year, there was a "near perfect" correlation between gun ownership in their states and how those senators voted on the background check amendment. Where gun ownership in a state was 42 percent or above, 13 of 14 senators voted "No"; where ownership was below 42 percent, 11 of 12 voted yes.
Wins and losses
But not all fear — even fear of the NRA — is rational. And it is by no means evident from the record that the average senator or congressman should fear the NRA anywhere as much as many apparently do. In 2012, the NRA invested $4.3 million in 16 senate races, but won in only 3. It endorsed 20 candidates, but only nine of them were victorious. In 15 Senate races during 2010 and 2012 in which the NRA made its largest contributions — $200,000 or more either to support a candidate it favored or to defeat one it opposed — it won only six times. The NRA also spent $13.6 million last year to elect Mitt Romney and to convince voters, as LaPierre told a conservative audience in 2011, that President Obama, once re-elected, planned to "get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom — erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution." Most Americans were unconvinced.
The NRA may be losing a lot of elections but, as it noted in a statement last November, "both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House will continue to have pro-gun majorities." The NRA's genius for convincing a substantial number of gun owners that they are at Armageddon's doorstep at any given moment has also been terrific for the group's bottom line. Although its critics have long challenged the NRA's claim to four million members, Keene now says the NRA has added an additional million since President Obama pleaded for new gun laws in the wake of the Newtown murders.
Meanwhile the NRA's most recent lobbying report shows that the organization and its legislative affiliate spent at least $800,000 lobbying the federal government during the first three months of 2013. In the previous year, the NRA spent $2.5 million on lobbying, 62 times as much money as the $40,000 spent by the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Regardless of which side you're on, it hardly seems like a fair fight. But it is a decisive fight. The NRA was victorious on every gun vote cast in the recent Senate debate and may have buried the chances for any gun control this year. It was by almost any measure an impressive performance — whatever the reason.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.