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Did the National Rifle Association Buy Congress?

It’s often said that the NRA’s political influence stems from outspending gun control supporters. That's a myth.

by
Howard Nemerov

Bio

February 5, 2011 - 12:00 am

ChicagoBusiness.com recently reported that the Joyce Foundation is the last bastion of philanthropy countering the National Rifle Association’s congressional influence, allegedly bought by political spending. Ellen Alberding, Joyce’s president, believes the Tucson mass murder is an opportunity to attract more anti-gun money in order to “make a difference in balancing out the dialogue.”:

She plans new efforts to tap a “silent majority” she believes favors more restrictive gun laws, particularly hunters. “They can be useful partners, credible partners when talking about issues like high-capacity magazines and .50-caliber rifles.”

The article continues with the “imbalance” portrayal, saying Joyce “is outspent roughly 100 to 1 by the NRA alone, not to mention other gun rights groups and the $28-billion gun manufacturing industry.”

This article examines each talking point, using Open Secrets data to separate fact from fiction.

“The silent majority supports gun control”

The “silent majority” claim is curious, because post-Tucson polls indicate historically low support for gun control. Rasmussen found that 29% believed more gun control would help prevent similar tragedies, while 62% believed it wouldn’t; 36% supported stricter gun control, but 56% opposed it. When Gallup asked if the tragedy “would have been prevented with stricter gun laws,” 20% agreed and 72% disagreed.

These responses are reasonable. Recently, one suicide bomber killed “at least 35” and “injured over 150 people” at Russia’s biggest airport. To maximize body count, bombs beat guns.

“$28-billion gun manufacturing industry”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun manufacturers’ trade association, contributed to federal candidates’ campaigns in two election cycles since 1990. Open Secrets reports that the NSSF PAC didn’t exist until 2010, and NSSF has spent under $1.7M total on lobbying since 1998, the earliest lobbying data available.

Open Secrets lists firearms makers under “Misc. Manufacturing & Distributing.” Since 1990 their total political spending is $4.7M. As shown in Table 1, the entire industry spent a total of $6.9M on campaigns, lobbying, and PACs, but this doesn’t equal one law firm’s expenditures, as discussed later.

“Hunters support gun control”

In the NRA’s February America’s First Freedom magazine, Dave Kopel notes how anti-rights groups claim hunters’ support. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) recently filed a lawsuit to force the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead ammunition. The CBD claimed hunter support, but Kopel noted that Project Gutpile “appears to be the project of just one California hunter.”

Another “hunters” organization was the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which endorsed Obama for president. Google lists them, but the web site is gone.

“The NRA outspends its political opponents”

Open Secrets reports that the NRA spent a total of $128M on federal politics (campaign contributions, lobbying, and PACs). But NRA membership numbers get downplayed in order to sell readers on the mythology of a special interest cadre called the “gun lobby.” The NRA currently has 4.3M members.

While a substantial amount, the NRA’s total political spending doesn’t match one trial lawyers’ organization, as discussed below.

“Joyce Foundation represents popular demand for gun control”

The Joyce Foundation’s 2008 financial statement shows it has no public membership. Joyce’s 501 (c)(3) status exempts it from federal income taxes. The IRS notes:

“To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code…it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

The IRS says one of the “exempt purposes” of a 501(c)(3) is: “eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law….”[Emphasis added]

Since all the “gun violence” grantees are anti-rights, it appears that Joyce Foundation doesn’t defend your civil right of self-defense and discriminates against law-abiding gun owners. Instead, Joyce spends money on organizations attempting to influence legislation.

Joyce represents a dozen well-heeled directors with a direct connection to Obama, a former Joyce director.

“Joyce is all alone in fighting for gun control’

More importantly, Joyce isn’t the only anti-gun player, nor is it the wealthiest.

For example, billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Institute promotes firearms licensing and registration, two major goals of gun control advocates. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, leader of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, used the Tucson tragedy to promote new limitations on firearm sales and to reduce ammunition magazine capacity.

An earlier report showed that in 2008, the law lobby — lawyers and law firms — contributed more to anti-gun politicians’ campaign funds. This correlation persisted in 2010, as noted in the graph below: The greater the portion of total contributions, the lower the NRA grade. (For statisticians, the Spearman’s value for all candidates is -0.80, and -0.90 for incumbents: lower NRA grades correlate strongly with law lobby money comprising a greater share of total campaign funding.)

In the current Congress, Democrats average an NRA grade of “D,” and the law lobby comprised 6.9% of their campaign funding; Republicans average an “A” and received 2.7% of their funding from lawyers.

The American Bar Association (ABA) recently recommended federal and state laws requiring microstamping, requiring a permanent database of all gun owners (licensing) and linking their firearms by serial number (registration). Since 1998, the ABA spent over $15.2M on lobbying.

Since 1990, the American Association for Justice — formerly called the Association of Trial Lawyers of America — invested $131.6M in political spending, more than the NRA (see Table 2).

An earlier report examined how the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Meagher and Flom, LLP has a financial stake in promoting gun control, noting its significant campaign finance “investment” in anti-rights candidates. Skadden was Obama’s 14th biggest contributor in 2008.

Table 2 below categorizes Skadden’s $11.2M in political spending. Though a relatively modest sum, it’s 62% more than the entire firearms industry. The “per member” amounts in Table 3 are more compelling: With “over 2,000 attorneys,” Skadden spent about $1,170 per lawyer during the 2008 election cycle, compared to the NRA’s $4.61.

Since 1990, lawyers contributed nearly $1.1 billion on federal campaigns alone. Plus, they spent hundreds of millions more on lobbying and PAC-funded campaign contributions.

Unlike NRA PAC spending in Table 2, which included expenses like postage and administrative salaries, the law lobby’s PAC money went to candidates’ campaign funds. For an apples-apples comparison, the NRA spent $8.5M of all PAC money on campaign contributions; law lobby PACs spent about nine times more. Overall, the law lobby spent about 10 times as much as the NRA and firearms industry together. According to Joyce’s criteria that more political spending equals more influence, the law lobby wins.

(ABA report on lawyer population.)

“The NRA outspends Joyce 100 to 1″

Joyce spent $54M on anti-gun research since 1993. During the same time period, the NRA’s total political spending was $128.1M, about 2.4 times Joyce’s “investment.” Perhaps this is why anti-rights groups are losing credibility: calling this ratio “roughly” equal to 100:1 is a mere 4167% margin of error.

Obviously, there are other industries and special interest groups that benefit from more or less gun control, which only serves to reinforce the fact that insinuating the NRA bought Congress by comparing it to the Joyce Foundation dangerously oversimplifies the issue.

All the wealthy and powerful special interests arrayed against the Second Amendment, when taken together, represent far fewer people — and far more money — than the NRA.

That’s anti-democratic.

* All data retrieved from Open Secrets and compiled into Excel workbook.

Former civilian disarmament supporter and medical researcher Howard Nemerov investigates the civil liberty of self-defense and examines the issue of gun control, resulting in his book Four Hundred Years of Gun Control: Why Isn’t It Working? He appears frequently on NRA News as their “unofficial” analyst and was published in the Texas Review of Law and Politics with David Kopel and Carlisle Moody.
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