Amid an outpouring of condolences after last week’s deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, the reaction from one gun-rights group stood out.
“Blood is on the hands of members of Congress and the Connecticut legislators who voted to ban guns from all schools in Connecticut,” Gun Owners of America said in a statement Dec. 15, a day after a gunman killed 27 people, including 20 first-graders, in Newtown, Conn. “They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school.”
The explosive comment from an advocacy group with more than 300,000 members that is capable of raising tens of millions of dollars and has the ear of many conservative members of Congress underscores the difficulty that Democrats face passing any legislation that seeks to curtail access to guns.
Already, some gun control advocates are beginning to lay out specific policy proposals in response to the Connecticut shooting. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will reintroduce a version of the expired 1994 assault weapons ban and a proposal to ban magazine clips “of more than 10 bullets.” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the retiring Connecticut Independent who caucuses with Democrats, advocated for the creation of a national commission on violence.
Such proposals, however, are likely to run into the opposition not only of the National Rifle Association — one of the most formidable lobbies in Washington — but also from Gun Owners of America, a smaller, Springfield, Va.-based group that argues even more emphatically that the answer to mass shootings is to give Americans more, not less, access to firearms.
The two advocacy groups are often at odds on both strategy and messaging, even engaging in occasional backbiting, but together they have successfully blocked all major gun control measures since 1994. In the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre, the NRA denied reporters’ interview requests and shuttered its Facebook account, while the GOA seized the spotlight.
“They go into possum mode every time something like this happens,” said Mike Hammond, the group’s legal counsel who worked for 12 years as legal counsel to the Senate Steering Committee. “That’s the reason why we exist.”
Gun-control advocates say the GOA makes inflammatory statements to distract the public from middle-of-the-road policy solutions and to raise money from supporters.
“I think they get a lot more attention than they deserve, as people who make outrageous comments often do,” Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said.
The group operates on a slim budget of just less than $2 million compared with the NRA’s $71 million in 2010, according to the most recent tax filings available. Still, it is widely seen as a major player in the debate over firearms on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has praised the group as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington” — and it frequently outspends the NRA on lobbying activities.