New debate over gun laws will test the gun lobby’s influence
Traditionally outspent, gun control groups’ efforts have grown
Greg Landsman, the Democrat challenging Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot in one of the country’s most competitive House races, called on his opponent Wednesday to embrace new gun control measures following recent shooting massacres in Texas and New York.
“Our collective grief and outrage must lead to change,” Landsman, a Cincinnati councilmember, said in a news release from his campaign that also highlighted contributions Chabot had received from gun rights organizations.
It’s just one example of how the debate over federal gun legislation — thrust anew to the forefront by the deadliest school shooting in a decade, in Uvalde, Texas — has begun to permeate political messaging and fundraising appeals in competitive House and Senate races. Gun control organizations and the gun rights groups on the other side are gearing up for an immediate lobbying push on Capitol Hill while also investing in the candidates they’d like to see make up the next Congress.
Gun control has long been popular in heavily Democratic districts. And in the wake of the recent shootings, the House Judiciary Committee — whose chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, suddenly faces a Democratic primary against a fellow incumbent — scheduled a meeting for Thursday to mark up legislation that includes proposals to raise the age to buy semi-automatic rifles and ban high-capacity magazines.
On the flip side, nearly all Republicans are entrenched in their support for gun rights. On Saturday, an event at a shooting range in Nevada, sponsored by Gun Owners of America, attracted GOP candidates seeking the nominations for House and Senate.
But recent shootings appear to have made some Republicans reconsider their positions. Bipartisan Senate talks have resumed about measures that would provide grants for local “red flag” laws.
[Senators debate red flag law grants after Texas shooting]
Rep. Chris Jacobs, a Republican from western New York, on Friday came out in support of a ban on semi-automatic rifles and other measures. The Buffalo News reported Tuesday that his declaration immediately led to a push to find a Republican to challenge Jacobs in the August primary. Another shooting Wednesday at a hospital in Tulsa, Okla., promises to keep the gun policy debate top of mind.
Groups close to the issue say they’re watching both the Hill and the campaign trail.
“I don’t think there’s a Senate race that we’re not interested in, given how close the Senate is,” said Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm trade industry group.
The group’s PAC has donated to Rep. Ted Budd, the GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina’s open-seat race, and some of its biggest checks so far this cycle have gone to House Republican leaders, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The disclosures show the PAC has contributed to Chabot as well as to a vulnerable incumbent Democrat: Rep. Jared Golden of Maine.
Gun rights groups are not supporting Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, a Democrat seeking retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat, who sent fundraising appeals on gun control after last week’s shooting in Uvalde. Fetterman reiterated his opposition to the Senate’s filibuster rules requiring 60 votes for most legislation, rules that blocked a bipartisan background check bill that Toomey co-sponsored in 2013. “Enough is enough,” Fetterman wrote to supporters.
By more than 3-to-1, gun rights groups — including the best-known National Rifle Association, which has filed for bankruptcy and may no longer be the political behemoth it once was — have outspent gun control groups on elections and federal lobbying in the past dozen years. Gun control groups have spent about $50 million since 2010 to gun rights groups’ $155.6 million, according to the nonpartisan OpenSecrets, which tracks political money and lobbying expenditures.
Gun control groups have begun to close the gap, especially as the NRA has hit a tumultuous period of declining revenue and foreign-influence scandals. Still, the NRA isn’t the only gun rights organization, and pro-Second Amendment views are widely baked into Republican orthodoxy.
Sheila Krumholz, OpenSecrets’ executive director, said the imbalance in outside election spending between the two sides of the gun policy debate may not endure. Gun control groups outspent gun rights groups in the 2018 elections, she noted, though not in 2020. Gun control groups are “still at a disadvantage,” Krumholz said.
Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action, said in a statement that the NRA and the broader gun lobby is not what it once was.
“Dismantling the power that the gun lobby accumulated over decades was never going to happen overnight, but it’s clear that this NRA consumed by chaos and mismanagement is in a weakened position,” she said.
In the first quarter of this year, the NRA disclosed spending $620,000 on federal lobbying. That’s down from 2021, when quarterly totals ranged from $640,000 to $2.4 million.
The NRA, which recently held its convention in Texas, did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Other groups, too, were mobilizing this week in opposition to the slate of Democratic House Judiciary proposals. The American Firearms Association, which disclosed spending $10,000 on federal lobbying in this year’s first quarter, sent an email alert Wednesday urging its members to contact lawmakers immediately, in an attempt to thwart Nadler’s gun control measures. The group registered to lobby the federal government for the first time in January of this year, and lists among its lobbyists Patrick Parsons, who listed his prior job as chief of staff to lightning rod GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, according to a lobbying disclosure.
“The ONLY REASON why Congress is hoping to use the blood of dead children in Uvalde, TX to advance these bills is because they want to disarm gun owners — and put us in prison if they can!” the group said in an email, which also included links to donate amounts ranging from $17.76 to $1,000.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation spent nearly $1.1 million on lobbying in this year’s first quarter, according to disclosures filed with Congress, on par with its spending last year. The group’s Oliva said the organization was waiting to see what legislation senators from both parties may come up with.
“Our folks are constantly in communication with senators and members of Congress on both sides of the Hill and [both] parties,” he said. “We’ve been engaged with these legislators continuously over the years.”
He added that his group has “always been willing to sit down at the table to talk with anybody who’s going to provide constructive items or constructive conversation that’s going to produce real solutions.” He said new restrictions on the legal age to buy certain firearms would likely be a nonstarter but said the group was open to measures designed to remove guns from people at risk of harming themselves or others as long as they contain speedy due process requirements to protect owners’ rights.
Abby Wood, a law professor at the University of Southern California who focuses on politics and campaign finance, said some of the influence of the gun rights lobbies may be hard to trace if it stems from nonprofit groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. But money isn’t the only factor in the debate.
“My impression of all of this is that people really are pretty supportive of reasonable gun control and that the policies just don’t reflect public opinion,” she said. “It feels like a pretty unstable place to be, but we’ve been here for a while.”