Powerful Gun Lobby Faces Growing Resistance
Lawrence Keane is the gun lobby. So is Chris Stone.
Neither works for the National Rifle Association — the grass-roots and political organization that has become synonymous with the cause — but both are entrenched in the gun policy debate that is swirling to the forefront of 2016 campaigns.
Still, the two men are not of one mind. Keane, who represents gun manufacturers and retailers at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said his group is lobbying to improve the existing background check system. Stone’s group, Gun Owners of America, is unapologetically opposed.
“We consider ourselves ‘no compromise’ on the Second Amendment,” said Stone, director of federal affairs for the organization.
Like the NRA, their better-funded and bigger cousin, the two organizations are working to register voters and mobilize gun-rights activists. That is the kind of effort that has made the NRA the biggest, most feared group in the debate. It’s also part of setting the policy stage in the hopes of maintaining dominance on Capitol Hill, as advocates for gun control seek to match them in the big money and tactics needed to wield influence inside Congress.
Gun-rights advocates make for “great citizens” who engage their representatives and turn out to vote, said Kristin Goss, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and co-author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
Goss said when she first began studying the debates over gun policy in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t a critical mass of survivors of violence and others who favored gun-control measures that could compete with the commitment and money of gun-rights activists. Now, groups of well-funded survivors and victims of high-profile shootings may fill that void.
“This network of survivors has been a huge and important development because these people solve a couple of problems that the gun-control movement has had historically: sustaining passionate involvement over the long term and to find a morally compelling narrative that can really speak to lawmakers and the general public,” Goss said.
Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernard Sanders and Martin O’Malley, all vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, have embraced new gun control proposals and action from President Barack Obama to strengthen background checks. Some congressional candidates from the party have also made gun issues a focus.
Democrat Kathleen Matthews, who is running to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland’s 8th District, focused on gun violence in her first radio spots in the Washington, D.C.-area last month. “I’ll fight the NRA for tougher background checks on guns, ammunition sales and ban assault weapons,” Matthews said in the ad.
Gun policy also has become a flashpoint in Ohio’s Senate Democratic primary where past support for gun rights by former Gov. Ted Strickland, the front-runner, has given challenger P.G. Sittenfeld a rallying cry.
And the campaign of Morgan Carroll, a Democratic state senator running against Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado’s 6th District, emailed reporters a statement from Dave Hoover, who lost his nephew A.J. Boik in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. Hoover criticized Coffman’s opposition to Obama’s executive actions to tighten background checks.
Lawmakers fear the gun lobby’s voter mobilization and the retribution it has delivered in past elections. Gun-control advocates are working to shore up their own political movement including with financing from ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire behind Everytown for Gun Safety, which spent just under $400,000 on federal elections in the 2014 cycle, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Though the landscape may be shifting, the perception remains that pro-gun groups retain their strong position. And even when a bill doesn’t pass, support for legislation perceived as restricting Second Amendment rights still may haunt a lawmaker.
In 2013, after the shooting massacre of 20 school children in Newtown, Conn., Sen.
Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, teamed with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on legislation that would have expanded background checks.
Their measure failed, but gun-rights advocates say they haven’t forgotten the position of Toomey, one of the most vulnerable Republicans on the ballot this year.
“We were heavily opposed to Manchin-Toomey, and I don’t see us supporting Pat Toomey’s race for re-election,” said Stone of Gun Owners of America.
Most Republican candidates have made gun rights a platform plank, and their presidential hopefuls have pledged to undo Obama’s recent actions. That puts them in line with the NRA, whose lobbyists did not respond to requests for comment.
The NRA’s chief, Wayne LaPierre, said in a video statement that Obama’s actions were in “defiance of our constitutional system” and vowed the organization would “fight this illegal overreach more aggressively than we have ever challenged anything.”
Gun Owners of America is looking for ways to defund Obama’s executive actions on background checks, including by urging the GOP-controlled Congress to use its appropriations powers to block them, Stone said.
Gun Owners of America, with 500,000 members and a budget of more than $3 million, has spent about $1.5 million annually on federal lobbying, according to recent disclosures. The group spent about $160,000 in political money in 2014.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, Keane’s organization, which is based in Newtown, Conn., and has annual revenue of about $34 million, reported more than $3 million on federal lobbying in 2014 and was on track to exceed that in 2015.
The group’s political action committee raised more than $400,000 in the 2014 cycle and spent about half that. Former Rep. Max Sandlin, a Texas Democrat, is among its consultants.
The foundation opposes a bill that Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., introduced last week that would repeal a 2005 law that blocks liability suits against gun manufacturers if their products, even when they were lawfully sold, are used in crimes.
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont and Clinton’s main challenger for the Democratic nomination, recently said he would support Blumenthal’s effort –- a change from 2005 when he voted for the liability law.
The NRA spent a record sum on lobbying last year at nearly $3.5 million — a fraction of its more than $350 million in annual revenue. The NRA’s lobbying tab is also minuscule compared to the nearly $20 million it spent on 2012 elections or the $27 million on federal races for 2014, according to CRP data.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, the grass-roots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, said her organization and other like-minded groups are putting the gun lobby on notice. Her group has a chapter in every state and 3.5 million members compared with the NRA’s more than 5 million. Everytown spent more than $1.7 million on federal lobbying in 2014.
“The gun lobby’s hold at the federal level is loosening,” she said.