The gun industry as a whole – and the NRA in particular – represent one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. (Some might call the gun lobby THE most powerful special interest group in America.) The most powerful of these groups is by far the NRA, which advertises itself as “a 501 (c)(4) organization, which enables it to be involved in political processes including lobbying and political campaign activities.”
Traditionally, Republicans are the power base for the gun lobby, but these lobbying efforts target Democrats and Republicans alike. “I always bent over backwards to help Democrats,” says Richard Feldman, a former gun lobbyist. “A Democrat who was supportive of my issue was worth 10 Republicans.” (Dickinson, 2013A) Ironically, one of these NRA converts was none other than Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who ended up with an up close and personal lesson in the tragic consequences of loose gun law in America.
Typically, 501 (c)(4) organizations must be “social welfare” organizations, but the definition of social welfare is left up to the interpreter. For some, ensuring the right of Americans to murder their fellow citizens is considered social welfare. The NRA also supports things like shooting clubs and youth outreach efforts in order to pass as a social welfare organization.
The power of the gun lobby
Polls have consistently shown that there are more Americans in favor of stronger gun control laws than are against it. (See: What Americans Think About Guns) Yet virtually all of the legislation passed in recent years has significantly loosened gun laws – a pattern entirely at odds with public opinion. This is literally a case where the conversation on gun safety and the laws which are passed are being controlled by special interests. This was one of the many reasons that the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence Report gave President Obama a grade of “F” for his leadership on gun control. (Grunwald, 1-24-2011)
According to surveys, gun ownership rates hover at around 40% of all households. This means that 60% of Americans don’t have a personal stake in the issue that would distort their opinion, and thus should be open to reason. Considering how tremendously lopsided the data on community safety is in favor of restricting rather than expanding gun carry laws and gun ownership, we should have full public support behind laws which curtail the dissemination of guns, especially in light of the recent gun tragedies. Instead we see precisely the opposite happening. This can only be attributed to a failure to educate the public about actual risks when it comes to guns.
A lopsided legislative battle: How money & corporate interests influence the gun policy debate
One reason for the lack of progress is that it ends up being a lopsided debate. Those with a vested interest in loose gun laws (gun manufacturers, gun sellers, and gun enthusiasts) are able to put more money into the cause than gun safety advocates, who rely on the goodwill and generosity of average citizens. The U.S. gun industry is a $12 billion-plus a year industry, and those profiting from this revenue stream and those who love them as a hobby are more motivated than the average layperson to enter the debate.
In evidence of this, the NRA and other gun advocacy groups spent $2.3 million just on local state legislative battles alone from 2007 through 2012, compared with a meager $55,000 by gun-control groups over the same period. (Nicas & Palazzolo, 2013) That’s a discrepancy of more than 40 to 1 … hardly a fair fight. Or consider that during the 2012 election campaign, the NRA spent more than $24 million in both regulated contributions and dark money funding, compared to just $3,000 in spending by The Brady Campaign – a discrepancy factor of 8,000 to one. (Dickinson, 2013A) When what’s being lobbied over is a commercial product, those who are receiving billions of dollars in revenue through that product are always going to be in a better position than community interest groups. As stated by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation: “If you think about politics as a tug of war, when all the strength is on one side, it’s not surprising where the rope ends up.” (ibid)
Unfortunately, the recent Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court (which equates money to speech and allows corporations to indirectly spend as much as they please to elect friendly candidates and pass company friendly laws) has only expanded the NRAs power and reach. As Tim Dickinson writes, “The NRA can now tap into unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to engage in direct political advocacy – running TV advertising calling for the defeat of individual candidates.” (2013A, p. 47) They can spend as much as they want to defeat their enemies, and because they operate as a charity, they do not need to disclose the names or sources of their funding.
One step forward, two steps back
The gun lobby is often working behind the scenes to sneak in an expansion of gun laws into other bills, or insisting that any new prohibitions come with an expansion of gun rights. The end result is that for every step forward in terms of gun control we seem to take two steps back.
A perfect example of this is a gun bill just passed as I’m writing this in December of 2017 by the House of Representatives in a 231-198 vote. Representative Richard Hudson (R, N.C.) attached the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act onto a bill that would urge states to better maintain the criminal background check database – a popular move in the aftermath of the Texas church shooting, which left dozens dead at the hands of a man who should have never been able to own a gun had the military properly submitted data about his felony child abuse and domestic violence convictions.
The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would allow concealed weapons carriers in one state to carry their weapons anywhere in the U.S., essentially bypassing the rules in states with tougher gun laws. Basically, it strips states of their right to enact tougher gun legislation. Representative Elizabeth Etsy (D., Conn.) called it a “reckless giveaway” to the gun lobby, and that’s putting it mildly. (Palazzolo & Peterson, 12-7-2017) Expanding concealed carry is an expansion of gun homicide, and the NRA knows it. But it’s another step toward a return to the Wild West when guns were seen as an everyday utility – like a belt buckle and pants – which of course leads to more revenue flowing into the coffers of gun manufacturers. If the bill passes the Senate, advocates will try to portray it as a victory for gun control. Yet all it does is hand the gun lobby a big old Christmas gift alongside a “concession” that merely urges states to do what they’re required to do anyway. It’s the type of brinkmanship Washington is famous for. Because of the lobbying power of special interests, even when ordinary citizens win they ultimately lose.