Did the National Rifle Association Buy Congress?

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]