NRA uses money to build political clout

With details emerging of how accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner bought his semiautomatic Glock 19 at a sporting shop and ammunition at a Walmart, some in Congress are now calling for stronger gun control laws. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D., N.J. and Rep. Caroyln McCarthy, D., N.Y., both long-time gun control advocates, say they plan to introduce legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.

After an violent incident like Sunday’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that left six dead and 13 wounded at an Arizona shopping mall, Congress typically takes up proposals to regulate gun ownership—but faced with the clout of the gun lobby, it is rare for these efforts to get anywhere.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a notoriously powerful political player, known for spending millions on independent expenditures in Congressional races, long before this method of influencing elections became the latest political fad. In the 2010 elections alone, the group’s PAC spent $15 million; $7.3 million of that on independent spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

With this kind of money it can choose to be a major force in a race—in Sen. Roy Blunt’s successful campaign for Senate last November, the NRA spent more than $752,000, which made it the top outside spender on his behalf in the race, topping out American Crossroads, which has ties to GOP political operative Karl Rove. The NRA also fetes candidates at its Capitol Hill offices and its lobbyists show up as hosts for Congressional fundraisers.

This political spending dwarfs the contributions of gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence, which barely registered with contributions in the last election. 

Flash back to 1999, when, in the aftermath of the Columbine school shooting tragedy, when Congress considered legislation to require background checks for gun show purchases. Twelve students and a teacher had died at Columbine High School in suburban Colorado, after they were shot by students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who had acquired the guns after a friend bought them at Denver area gun shows. Not once but twice, the Senate voted against the measure. The 44 senators who said no to strong background checks over the course of a week in May 1999 were the beneficiaries, on average, of nearly 29 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 40 senators who said yes to background checks on three votes, as reported in "Is That a Politician in Your Pocket?" which I wrote with Micah Sifry.

This is not to say that political money is the only factor in these debates. Far from it—both gun control and gun rights advocates draw power from legions of dedicated grass roots activists. To say the issue draws strong emotions is a big understatement. Emotions run high. Lawmakers from rural states, where hunting and guns are part of the way of life, tend to oppose gun control more than those from urban areas, where so many die from gun violence. Still, there is no doubt that the NRA has long made the careful targeting of political money a major part of its lobbying strategy.


Nancy Watzman

consultant, Sunlight Foundation Because MUCK doesn't scare MOMs


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