When the democratic-controlled Senate voted down a bill that would have expanded background checks to all gun purchasers — despite a 90 percent approval rating among Americans — pundits were left scratching their heads over the logic that prevailed.
Yet a recent report released by the Sunlight Foundation sheds light on the ties lawmakers have to the National Rifle Association (NRA), indicating that 42 of the 45 senators who voted against the bill have received funds from the pro-gun lobby. Since 1990, 40 of those senators have received a combined $800,000 in NRA donations, according to the foundation’s figures.
The NRA lobby uses money as its most influential power. In 2010, its total budget was $243 million. In the 2012 election, the lobby organization spent $18.6 million in independent expenditures. On top of that, it forked out substantial numbers in key races where pro-gun control candidates had a shot at winning the ticket.
In the 2012 elections, the NRA contributed to 97 separate political races, spending more than $880,000 to defeat Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who went on to win.
It was the same case with Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who has emerged as pro-gun control and a watchdog of the oil industry. The NRA spent more than $626,000 on the campaign to defeat Nelson, who was being challenged by Republican Connie Mack. Nelson walked away with more than 55 percent of the vote.
Yet that defeat didn’t matter to the NRA in the end, as the vote in April against universal background checks worked out in their favor.
An NRA-sponsored defeat
Following the defeat of the gun control bill in the Senate this month, which also included a ban on semiautomatic weapons with military assault-style design, President Barack Obama fired back at the gun industry, blaming it for contributing financially to assure the bill’s defeat.
“It came down to politics. The worry that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections. And so they caved to the pressure, and they started looking for an excuse, any excuse, to vote no,” Obama told reporters.
Gabbie Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a gunshot wound to the head, stood by the president’s side.
When it comes to NRA loyalty, it isn’t only Republicans accepting gun lobby money, but donation figures show the party is more eager to accept funds from the gun lobby.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, is labeled as a “key player” on the long list of NRA beneficiaries. When Reid ran for re-election in 2010, he received nearly $5,000 — throughout his entire career, that figure tops $10,400.
Yet he’s nowhere near the donation totals of Rick Berg, a former Republican congressman from North Dakota who, in 2011-2012, received the largest sum from the total $1 million contributed to political candidates. Berg received $12,400 from the NRA.
Republicans do eat up the majority of NRA funding. Senate Republicans account for 84 percent of Republicans who are NRA funding recipients. On the Democratic side, 15 percent of lawmakers have received funding over the course of their career.
“More than anything, these numbers help us to identify who the NRA considers its friends in Congress, and something about the closeness of those friendships,” the Sunlight Foundation states in its report.
Going up against a big money industry
After the Newtown, Conn., school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Giffords announced plans to launch her new organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group that emerged as the first hope for a counter-NRA lobby force.
Gifford and her husband, Mark Kelly, both gun owners, said their goal was not to strip guns from the hands of American citizens, but to give a voice to those Americans who wanted “responsible” gun control.
“Special interests purporting to represent gun owners but really advancing the interests of an ideological fringe have used big money and influence to cow Congress into submission,” Giffords and Kelly wrote in a story published in January in USA Today. “Rather than working to find the balance between our rights and the regulation of a dangerous product, these groups have cast simple protections for our communities as existential threats to individual liberties.”
Though still new, Americans for Responsive Solutions proved not yet influential enough to lobby lawmakers to act on behalf of their cause — and vote in favor of a bill that included the overwhelmingly popular policy of universal background checks, which would have limited the ability of anyone, without a check, to purchase weapons at gun shows.
While Americans for Responsive Solutions has no industry to fuel its case, as the NRA does, it does have the support of Americans to fund it for future efforts to provide a lobbying balance to counteract the message of the NRA. As indicated on its website, this is only the start of the organization.
“Gabby has always said this would be a long, hard haul,” Kelly wrote. “Our work does not end today; we are committed to finding commonsense compromises that will keep us safer, and to making sure we have a Congress that will put the interests of their communities ahead of the interests of the gun lobby.”