Gun laws may not be changing, but the gun debate certainly is

Fewer and fewer elected Democrats fret much anymore about taking on the NRA

Students march to the Capitol in April 2018, calling on Congress to act on gun violence prevention. Gun control groups have spent more than $1.2 million on federal lobbying so far this year, keeping them on pace to spend the most they ever have. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — That almost nothing has changed in federal gun policy since Newtown or Parkland or any mass shooting before or after belies the enormous transformation underway in the lobbying and political landscapes of the issue.

Gun safety groups now operate a lot more like their opponents: amassing a national network of grassroots activists that descend on Capitol Hill and show up in lawmakers’ districts; spending big on political campaigns; and retaining some of the biggest names on K Street, firms that also represent the likes of Amazon and Goldman Sachs.

The combined lobbying efforts of gun control organizations — including Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords, and March for Our Lives Action Fund — is on pace this year to spend the most they ever have on federal lobbying, reporting more than $1.2 million so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s still a fraction of the nearly $5.5 million the other side, including the National Rifle Association, has shelled out on lobbying. But it indicates a deeper shift that portends a potentially dramatic change on the horizon when it comes to the gun policy debate.

“The tide has definitely turned throughout America,” said Rep. Jason Crow, a freshman Democrat from Aurora, Colorado, who beat an NRA-backed lawmaker, Republican Mike Coffman, in 2018. Crow, a military veteran and gun owner himself, said he feels the presence of gun control activists at home and on Capitol Hill, including the signature red shirts of Moms Demand Action.

“I agree with them,” he added, noting that they’ve grown fed up with federal inaction. “If you’re an elected official, unwilling to take action … you will not be able to shake them this election cycle.”

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican with a stellar NRA rating, invoked the back-to-back mass shootings over the summer recess in Texas and Ohio, saying recently that after the “horrendous” shootings in August, “at least we could come back with a level of seriousness that underscored that maybe we would like to get an outcome.”

In last year’s midterms, gun control forces actually outspent gun rights groups in support or opposition of candidates. Fewer and fewer elected Democrats fret much anymore about taking on the NRA, which has faced declining revenue, high-profile leadership squabbles, the ouster of its top lobbyists, and fallout from ties to a now convicted Russian foreign agent. The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

Instead, Democrats worry more about their standing with gun control groups. Crow said he held two gun policy events in his district over the recess, drawing hundreds. “You see Moms Demand and Everytown folks and everybody else showing up constantly,” he said. The influence of the NRA, at least in his suburban Denver district, is waning, he added.

Savvy Republicans see it coming. Michael Steel, who was an aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner, tweeted recently that “things could shift *fast* with polling this bad on this issue among young people,” potentially ushering in more extreme gun controls if Republicans don’t cooperate. Recent polling shows public support for expanded background checks at nearly 90 percent. House Democrats have a proposal (HR 8) along those lines. Corporations — such as Walmart, where an El Paso store was the site of a shooting in August that left 22 people dead — have instituted new policies including to stop selling certain types of ammunition. It’s a sign that customers and shareholders want to see something done and may serve as a memo to lawmakers.

After the 2012 massacre of 26 first-graders and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, two senators, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey, proposed expanding background checks for firearm sales at gun shows and over the internet. It failed, with some Democrats voting against it, including Sen. Mark Pryor from Arkansas.

In 2014, when Pryor faced Republican Tom Cotton, the NRA supported Cotton despite Pryor’s vote. Cotton won by 17 points.

Pryor, now a partner in the law and lobbying firm Venable, did not respond to inquiries. The NRA’s abandonment of Pryor may help explain — along with the stepped-up advocacy and political muscle of gun safety groups and shifting public opinion — why Democrats have become increasingly united in taking on the gun rights lobby. With Manchin, Toomey and others working toward a current deal, Democrats won’t be their obstacle.

If the gun control advocates, who regularly condemn the NRA’s political giving, continue to outspend it on elections, will those advocates drop their critique? That seems unlikely. It’s effective to portray the NRA as a special interest buying influence.

And don’t expect the gun lobby to disappear either.

“You can’t write off the influence of the NRA, especially after one election cycle,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a political money watchdog group. “It remains to be seen how they are going to exert political influence in the future.”

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