Protesters protest against gun violence in the U.S. on August 17, 2019, after a string of high profile shootings across the nation. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
For years, the National Rifle Association has been the uncontested heavyweight champion when it comes to spending on the gun debate.
Two years later, gun control groups including Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords, the organization run by and named for shooting survivor former Rep. Gabby Giffords; outspent the NRA and other pro-gun groups during the 2018 midterm elections.
The gap in spending between gun control and gun rights groups has closed dramatically over the last four years, according to Karl Evers-Hillstrom, who researches money in politics at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit watchdog group. “Gun rights groups had an edge for so long, especially on federal spending. To see gun control groups actually come close to them and actually surpass them like they did in the 2018 midterms is unprecedented,” he said.
That reversal in election spending trends came at a moment when the NRA found itself facing challenges from all sides, and even from within. As FRONTLINE examines in NRA Under Fire, the powerful pro-gun lobby has been confronted by a better funded and newly energized gun control movement — one bolstered by the student activism of survivors of the 2018 Parkland shooting. It also faces an investigation by the New York attorney general, internal turmoil and allegations of lavish spending. Just this week, the NRA told staff to brace for layoffs and salary cuts amid the fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For the past 30 years, the NRA has proved itself a powerful lobbying organization, according to James Thurber, a professor at American University who focuses on interest groups, lobbying, campaigns and elections. “They’ve been able to punish people who didn’t go along with the NRA,” he told FRONTLINE. “Democrats as well as Republicans have been afraid of them.”
The organization excelled at converting dollars into influence, said Daniel Newman, president of MapLight, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics. He pointed out that a poll in late 2019 by the Washington Post found 89 percent of Americans supported expanding background checks to private and gun-show sales, including eight in 10 Republicans. “In our democratic system, Congress is supposed to make laws that reflect generally what people want, but this is a stark example of that not having happened.”
Meanwhile, Thurber said, support for gun control groups would spike after a mass shooting, but then quickly wane. That’s now changed, he said: Gun control groups have now become a “mature movement” with more organization, grassroots involvement — and the ability to bring in money. The increased spending by gun control groups can offer cover to lawmakers, allowing them to vote for gun control measures that might previously have put their political careers in jeopardy, Thurber said.
The fundraising trend started in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, according to Evers-Hillstrom. Small-dollar donations to gun control groups increased, and wealthy backers were also drawn to the cause.
Another factor that boosted gun control groups was the financial backing of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and onetime presidential candidate. In 2014, the group he co-founded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, merged with Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization against gun violence, to form Everytown for Gun Safety.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told the Washington Post in January that Bloomberg has contributed between a quarter and a third of Everytown’s budget in recent years. But the movement has also swelled beyond Bloomberg’s support: She said Everytown’s number of small donors rose from 70,000 to 375,000 in the aftermath of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida — the same shooting that gave rise to the March For Our Lives movement, a series of student-led demonstrations across America that called for legislation to reduce gun violence.
In January, Everytown for Gun Safety announced that it intended to carry out its “largest and most well-resourced electoral effort ever,” planning to spend at least $60 million on the 2020 election — “more than the NRA spent in 2016.”
Meanwhile, the NRA has faced a series of troubles: allegations of extravagant spending by its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre; infighting that led to high-profile departures, and an investigation by the New York state attorney general.
However, the NRA still has influence in Washington, D.C. Evers-Hillstrom from the Center for Responsive Politics, pointed out that after back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in August 2019, pressure mounted on the Senate to pass a universal background check bill that had passed the House. Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords spent a combined $1.75 million on ads advocating for universal background checks and other measures, according to CRP. The NRA didn’t counter with an ad campaign, CRP noted. Instead, it leaned on the organization’s direct line to President Donald Trump, with LaPierre reportedly telling the president the NRA would not support legislation on background checks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was willing to bring to the floor legislation that Trump supported. That support never came.