A multi-pronged approach
Whatever the reasoning, clearly the NRA's gifts were not a key factor for Toomey in deciding to sponsor the background check amendment. A total of 14 other senators who have benefited from gun lobby money also supported his amendment. On the other hand, three senators who never received a single dollar from gun rights interests—Begich and Heitkamp, the two Democrats mentioned earlier, as well as Republican Dan Coats of Indiana—nonetheless voted against expanded background checks last month. Overall, at least 60 of the Senate's 100 members have benefited from at least $1,000 from the gun lobby during their careers.
Of course the background check amendment was not the only gun control proposal NRA supporters helped defeat. Senators also voted down a ban on assault weapons (40-60), a limit on large capacity magazines (46-54), and what might have seemed a thoroughly noncontroversial measure to make gun trafficking a crime (58-42). On top of that, they nearly passed (57-43) what is probably the NRA's top legislative priority, a "reciprocity" measure that would have allowed citizens holding concealed weapons permits from any state to legally carry them in any other state that allows for concealed carry, even those with much tougher rules.
NRA President Keene says claims that his organization simply buys votes with campaign contributions completely misunderstand the way the lobby works. The NRA, he says, is active in every state on a wide range of gun issues, and uses a broad range of tactics. "In a typical state we represent 10 percent of the persuadable Second Amendment voters" on any given gun issue, Keene says. Those voters, he says, include Democrats, independents, and union members who are not only passionate about gun rights, but who rely on NRA ratings of members and endorsements of candidates at the ballot box. Keene says these gun owners are willing to pick up a phone and make a call when asked and cited one senator who he said got 5,000 phone calls opposing expanded background checks prior to the Senate vote. "It isn't the money but the endorsements" that motivate lawmakers, Keene said. And those endorsements come from voting the NRA line.
Among the 42 Republicans who voted against stronger background checks, 40 are rated A or A+ by the NRA, meaning they virtually always vote with the NRA. Among the 41 Democrats who voted in favor of stronger background checks, 35 received ratings of D or F from the gun organization.
Gregg Lee Carter, a professor of sociology at Bryant College in Rhode Island and the editor of Guns in American Society, generally agrees with Keene's view on the role of money, although he states the case differently. "The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it's how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail 'em, they call 'em, they fax 'em, they show up at meetings. The typical person who is for gun control is very different from the [pro-gun] person calling you or being right there, being an annoyance, hassling you personally. They're much more activist than the other side and that's what really produces their gains."
Yet when it comes to campaign contributions, Carter says that the amount contributed by the NRA is most often a minuscule percentage of a House or Senate candidate's overall campaign budget. "Money is important," he says, "but that's not what it's really about."
It is difficult to say with any precision how often lawmakers are swayed by the gun lobby's money or its endorsements. But there's no question some fear the NRA's ability to make their lives miserable. Suffice to say that at least two Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 and voted with the NRA against tighter background checks—Begich of Alaska and Pryor of Arkansas—were probably unwilling to test their luck.
There are 26 senators up for reelection in 2014. Since none of these lawmakers have run since the Citizens United decision, the amounts they've received from both sides have been modest. In reality, the number of those who are actually vulnerable to pressure from either pro- or anti-gun money and lobbying is probably relatively small, and neither the NRA nor Bloomberg can be expected to throw large amounts of money at either Senate or House races where they have little chance of winning. What makes an incumbent fearful of pressure on gun issues is an inexact science, but a recent analysis by New York Times data guru Nate Silver suggests that a key factor to look at is the rate of gun ownership in a given state. Silver found that among the 26 senators up next year, there was a "near perfect" correlation between gun ownership in their states and how those senators voted on the background check amendment. Where gun ownership in a state was 42 percent or above, 13 of 14 senators voted no; where ownership was below 42 percent, 11 of 12 voted yes.
Wins and losses
But not all fear—even fear of the NRA—is rational. And it is by no means evident from the record that the average senator or congressman should fear the NRA anywhere as much as many apparently do. In 2012, the NRA invested $4.3 million in 16 Senate races, but won in only 3. It endorsed 20 candidates, but only 9 of them were victorious. In 15 Senate races during 2010 and 2012 in which the NRA made its largest contributions—$200,000 or more either to support a candidate it favored or to defeat one it opposed—it won only six times. The NRA also spent $13.6 million last year to elect Mitt Romney and to convince voters, as LaPierre told a conservative audience in 2011, that President Obama, once reelected, planned to "get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom—erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcize it from the US Constitution." Most Americans were unconvinced.
Keene says claims that the NRA simply buys votes with campaign contributions completely misunderstand the way the lobby works.
The NRA may be losing a lot of elections but, as it noted in a statement last November, "both the US Senate and the US House will continue to have pro-gun majorities." The NRA's genius for convincing a substantial number of gun owners that they are at Armageddon's doorstep at any given moment has also been terrific for the group's bottom line. Although its critics have long challenged the NRA's claim to 4 million members, Keene now says the NRA has added an additional million since President Obama pleaded for new gun laws in the wake of the Newtown murders.
Meanwhile the NRA's most recent lobbying report shows that the organization and its legislative affiliate spent at least $800,000 lobbying the federal government during the first three months of 2013. In the previous year, the NRA spent $2.5 million on lobbying, 62 times as much money as the $40,000 spent by the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Regardless of which side you're on, it hardly seems like a fair fight. But it is a decisive fight. The NRA was victorious on every gun vote cast in the recent Senate debate and may have buried the chances for any gun control this year. It was by almost any measure an impressive performance—whatever the reason.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.