Government, Guns & Money

Not many issues are as polarizing as gun control in this country. Politics around regulation and deregulation have been intense for years and the fights have grown more vitriolic – and more expensive –more recently as we’ve seen a growth in disturbing mass murders. The public outcry for action was deafening after December’s shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. And most of the country seemed to support background checks, if nothing else. A new study from Quinnipiac University showed 88% of gun-owning households and 91% of the general population supporting it. And a Pew surveyfrom January shows that 85% support background checks.

And yet it didn’t pass in Congress. With such clear public support why With such clear public support why didn’t lawmakers pass it? Well, the cynic in me suggests that we look at the amounts of money spent on lobbying the issue. The NRA reportedthat it raised $2.7 million for its political action committee in just January and February this year. And, according to Bloomberg,

  • The National Rifle Association reported spending $700,000 on lobbying from January to March, congressional disclosures show.
  • Gun Owners of America, boosted its spending to $313,032 in 2013 from $272,075 in 2012.
  • The National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., the trade group for gun manufacturers such as Sturm Ruger & Co. Inc. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. (SWHC), spent $480,000, six times the $80,000 spent a year ago.

It’s not that the lobbying is surprising, but it does raise questions. If even gun owners are supporting background checks, as recent surveys suggest, then why do groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America lobby against it? Where does a group like the NRA get its funding?

Revenue reportedly comes from a variety of sources including, membership, programming, private donations and corporate donations. And, according to Nation of Change, other organizations lobbied on behalf of the NRA during the first quarter of 2013, spending at least $100,000. The groups include, Crossroads Strategies, Prime Policy Group, FTI Government Affairs and Shockey Scofield Solutions. One source says that, in 2010, half of the $227.8 million in revenue came from membership dues and program fees. Okay. But where is the rest of the income coming from? The same source suggests that it is likely gun manufacturers. Now, there’s evidence that large private funders like the Koch Brothers may also be underwriting the NRA lobbying work.

The Washington Post recently published an interesting piece tracing the NRA’s transformation from a sportsmen’s group to a lobbying machine. Pivotal in this history was new leadership in the 1970s and the formation of a lobbying arm of the group called the Institute for Legislative Action. In a letter to membership, the then director of the lobbying efforts wrote, “No compromise. No gun legislation.” Read this article. It really is a fascinating piece of history.

Like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NRA has done a good job of appealing to Main Street while dealing in the interests of Wall Street. Both take donations from corporations and spend millions lobbying for corporate interests in Washington without disclosing just who is funding any one issue. In the end, these groups are tools of corporations and allow them to push for issues while hiding behind trade groups and nonprofits. There’s a term for this: dark money. And there’s a reason they want to keep this money dark, keep these donations secret. They either don’t want to be seen as a player in a particular issue or they feel like someone will take issue with their involvement. So they fund groups who do it for them while masquerading as citizens groups. It’s time for transparency in lobbying. We don’t seem to be able to stop the flow of money to our lawmakers so we need to work for disclosure.

There’s that fantasy/joke (and accompanying graphics) going around about making our lawmakers wear the logos of their sponsors just like NASCAR drivers do. It would be funny if it weren’t so close to the truth.