Politics

Gun Control Votes Become a Litmus Test for Political Giving

Stakes are high for candidates as Senate weighs amendments

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, locked in a tough re-election fight, has been a beneficiary of National Rifle Association giving in the current campaign cycle. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As senators prepare to vote on divisive gun measures on Monday, lobbying organizations such as the National Rifle Association, as well as high-dollar K Street donors, have ratcheted up pressure campaigns on lawmakers.  

Senators will vote Monday on a proposal to prohibit firearms sales to people on terror watch lists, as part of a larger Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill. Other amendments would extend background checks on gun sales.  

The gun debate factored prominently in pivotal Senate races such as the Ohio contest before the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Since then, outrage over the incident, and a filibuster by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy has made the issue something of a litmus test for political giving.  

The NRA sent out an “urgent” action alert to its grassroots members (about 5 million people) alerting them to possible votes to ban assault weapons such as the AR-15 used in the Orlando shooting, and to prohibit people on terror watch lists from purchasing firearms.  

“We must defeat every one of these anti-gun proposals,” the alert stated. Highlighting its rift with President Barack Obama, the group also asserted that some lawmakers and gun control advocates would “rather blame you as a law-abiding gun owner than make Obama answer for his failures in the global war on terror.”  

[ 'I've Had Enough': Murphy Filibuster Gains Promise for Senate Gun Votes ]  

Gun control groups, including Everytown for Gun Safety and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, have stepped up their activism using survivors of mass shootings. In contrast to the NRA, whose federal lobbying tab in 2015 exceeded $3.5 million, the most of any year it disclosed in congressional reports, Everytown reported spending $1.4 million on lobbying in 2015, while the Brady group disclosed $150,000 in the same period.  

The NRA’s political arm has spent more than $1 million in the current election cycle, with more than $550,000 aimed at swaying the Ohio Senate race in favor of Republican incumbent Rob Portman, who is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Ted Strickland.  

Gun rights lobbyists, such as Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for the firearm industry group National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the terror watch list provisions under discussion on Capitol Hill would not have prevented the Orlando massacre because the gunman, who had been identified as a person of interest by the FBI, was no longer under government surveillance.  

“The FBI took him off the list,” Keane said. “If he was still on the lists, the FBI could’ve been notified.”  

[ Campaigns Embrace National Security Message After Orlando Shooting ]  

He said Congress should hold hearings before voting on the amendments to determine "whether there is a policy adjustment that needs to be made based on the facts, rather than a desire to be seen as doing something in response to a horrible, horrible tragedy.”  

The firearm industry is also rallying around a 2005 law that gives liability protections to makers of guns that are later used in crimes. And it is fighting to keep the AR-15 on the market, noting it is the most popular rifle sold in the United States today and used for target shooting, hunting and self-defense.  

“The focus should be on the conduct of the individual and not on the product,” Keane said.  

For some Washington insiders, the gun-policy votes this week may affect how they spend their personal political money this cycle and beyond.  

“I’m not interested in supporting people who won’t ban assault rifles,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist with Subject Matter LLC and a high-dollar donor to Democratic candidates. “It used to be you could give a pass on this, but I’m not interested in giving anyone a pass anymore.”  

Elmendorf said the gun votes have replaced same-sex marriage in determining how he will dole out campaign donations. In this cycle, Elmendorf, who is gay, has so far contributed more than $100,000. He noted that he wouldn’t hold past votes against candidates.  

[ Will Firearm Filibuster Bring Progress? ]  

Another top K Street donor, Democrat Larry O’Brien of the OB-C Group, represents the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. O’Brien said he has donated to the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, created after the 2012 shooting of elementary school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.  

“I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you can’t only be devastated by the mass slaughter by high-powered weapons,” he said.

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