Politics & Policy

The Myth of the Big Bad Gun Lobby

NRA and Second Amendment-themed buttons on display in Ames, Iowa, 2011. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)
Campaign contributions aren’t nearly as powerful as Americans’ belief in the Second Amendment.

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, the NRA gets its way only by intimidating elected officials.

In an interview with Newsweek last week, Clinton claimed that the NRA uses campaign donations and advertising dollars to keep politicians from doing what they know saves lives. In the same interview, her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, blamed the NRA for “using money and influence to cause gridlock in Washington,” lamenting that “too many elected officials are scared to prioritize the safety of our communities over the profits of the gun lobby for fear they’ll lose their jobs.”

But gun-control groups spend much more money than the NRA does. Why aren’t they more successful in buying votes?

Just look at donations to federal candidates during the two years leading up to the 2014 congressional elections, the last full election cycle. Michael Bloomberg, who has a net worth of $48.2 billion, gave $28.6 million to candidates by himself. His organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, which gets virtually all of its money from Bloomberg, gave another $298,000.

By contrast, the NRA gave just $982,000, or 1/30th the amount spent by Bloomberg. While not all of Bloomberg’s campaign donations were driven by gun issues, his spending clearly dwarfs what the NRA could give.

In state and local races around the country, Bloomberg has deployed resources that the NRA could only dream of. In just two Virginia state-senate races in 2015, Bloomberg spent a total of $2.2 million. That is vastly more money than the NRA was able to spend on any race for the U.S. Congress. Bloomberg spent $150,000 alone on the election for Milwaukee sheriff, in an attempt to unseat outspoken gun-control opponent David Clarke — more than the combined amount that Clarke and his opponent spent on their own campaigns.

When Advertising Age added up TV-advertising expenditures by those on either side of the gun-control issue for 2013, it found that gun-control groups outspent gun-rights groups by 7.4 to one, with 85 percent of their money coming from Bloomberg. And even setting aside Bloomberg’s massive contributions, the gun-control advocates still spent twice as much as the NRA and other pro-self-defense groups.

Things get even more lopsided when we look at research funding. Bloomberg, billionaire George Soros, a few dozen large health-care foundations, and even the Obama-led federal government are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fund research that supports their pro-gun-control positions. Newly released Bloomberg studies garner massive, uncritical news coverage. NRA-funded research would get scoffed at, which is why the NRA doesn’t even try funding opposing studies.

But Bloomberg doesn’t stop at funding candidates and favorable research: He has worked with the Columbia University Journalism School to instruct reporters from around the country on how to properly cover the gun issue. Is there really any chance that Columbia University would work with the NRA to create a similar kind of program?

Of course, there is also all the media bias that already exists where the gun issue is concerned. In my new book, The War on Guns, I point to the many dramatic cases where potential mass shootings were stopped by heroes with a concealed-carry permit — and even the local news barely deigned to notice. Not to mention the claims made by President Obama and Hillary Clinton — and accepted unquestioningly by the media — about everything from the U.S. supposedly being uniquely prone to mass shootings to the benefits of background checks on private transfers.

If it’s true that political leaders simply haven’t had the courage to stand up to the gun lobby, the real question is how Bloomberg could spend so much and have so little to show for it.

What makes the NRA powerful is its 5 million members and its 58 percent approval rating among voters. Campaign spending can’t easily beat that.

— John R. Lott Jr. is the author of the newly released The War on Guns and the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.

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