The National Rifle Association pours piles of money into elections. The NRA and its affiliates spent more than $50 million supporting seven Republicans and running attack ads against Democrats during the 2016 election cycle alone. Spending that kind of cash has yielded impressive results–the gun rights group supported Donald Trump and six Republican Senate candidates in 2016; six of those candidates won their races.
After every mass shooting, after Newtown and Parkland and Santa Fe, gun violence prevention advocates who know how much the NRA’s money matters jump on social media to ask, “Why can’t we outspend the National Rifle Association and buy our own members of Congress?”
The advocates come with passion and statistics. They cite 2017 Pew Research Center data: Only 3 in 10 adults in this country own a gun, 68% support bans on assault-style weapons, and 84% support background checks for private sales and at gun shows (a February Quinnipiac University poll put support for universal background checks at a whopping 97%). Yet the question of, “Why can’t we raise the cash to beat the NRA?” often feels rhetorical, a shout of desperation into the void. But as a new school year begins with many parents on edge and gun violence prevention groups gaining momentum, it’s a legitimate question. When will national opinions about guns turn into hard dollars for those looking to outspend the NRA and other gun rights organizations?
Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun violence prevention group founded by Michael Bloomberg, who initially seeded the organization with $50 million in 2014, doesn’t like to reduce their efforts to simple economics. But they admit donations are already fueling their fight against the NRA’s agenda: Bloomberg has kept pumping his own millions into Everytown, but 350,000 individual donors have also join the cause (up from 85,000 donors two years ago).
“Look at the Virginia races last year in the NRA’s own backyard and you see we had a total sweep,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, part of the Everytown coalition.
In 2017 elections, specifically in Virginia, outspending the NRA appeared to prove a decisive factor in the results. Estimates show Everytown spent at least $2.3 million on last year’s Virginia races versus between $1.5 million and $2 million in spending from the NRA. Everytown endorsed and helped fund Democratic candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general after the three committed to a range of gun safety solutions and named universal background checks for gun purchases as a top priority. All three won their races. This year they have continued to push for expanded background checks and, in July, Virginia joined a lawsuit seeking to block the distribution of detailed plans for 3D-printed guns.
Exit polls report gun policy was the second most important issue in the governor’s race and polls commissioned by gun violence prevention groups after the election reported gun policy was equally or more important in the other races. This indicates it wasn’t just money that made the difference, but voter priorities and Everytown’s extensive ground game: “We did over 55 canvassing sessions alone for (then candidate, now Virginia governor) Ralph Northam, and when you have boots on the ground, when you have a grassroots army, it matters a lot,” Watts says. Of course money funds those boots.
“This idea that the NRA is buying congressmen is not an accurate depiction of what is going on, the relationships are much more complex than that,” says Kristin A. Goss, a Duke University professor of public policy and political science, and the author of two books about U.S. gun policy. “The NRA power doesn’t come primarily from its money. Traditionally, the NRA’s strength has come from having a very mobilized base. The NRA and other gun rights groups are very organized at the state level and very good at encouraging political participation.”
“But I’m not going to say that money doesn’t matter in politics, of course it does,” Goss says. “All movements need money to organize people, to exercise their voice, and to open doors to lawmakers. Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Despite unprecedented momentum, the gun violence prevention movement still doesn’t have funding on par with gun rights groups. According to recent research by Goss, four leading gun rights groups and their charitable affiliates took in about $437 million in 2016. Conversely, six prominent gun violence prevention groups and their charitable affiliates tallied nearly $95 million, just 22% of their opponents’ haul. That difference is narrowing–Goss’s research shows a decade ago, gun violence prevention groups brought in less than 3% of the cash of their counterparts–but it is still a significant gap.
The numbers are counterintuitive. Pew’s findings tell us 19% of gun owners belong to the NRA. This would translate to 13 million American adults, but even the NRA generally touts their membership rolls at around 6 million, and many argue those numbers are inflated (the NRA didn’t respond to an interview request for this story). Vastly more people disagree with the NRA’s legislative agenda than agree with it. Yet gun violence prevention groups didn’t see the same massive post-2016 election surge other organizations saw– the ACLU has pulled in approximately $120 million in online donations since the election of Trump; Planned Parenthood added 1.5 million supporters in 2017.
Opponents of gun rights activists have spent decades battling what academics call a “collective action problem.”
“We assume that because a lot of people share our belief in gun control, any money we give to gun control groups will be a drop in the bucket, so we don’t give any money or time at all,” says Charlotte Hill, who researches public policy at University of California, Berkeley and writes about money in politics. “When everyone acts that way, gun control groups end up under-resourced, even though they have popular support for their policies.”
That appears to be shifting as we move toward the midterms.
School shootings are common–Hill notes before Columbine, the phrase “school shooting” didn’t exist, as it wasn’t a common enough category of violence. Anti-gun-violence protests now receive a significant amount of media coverage. Businesses have voluntarily become more strict about gun sales, many raising the age of purchase from 18 to 21 and ending sales of high-capacity magazines and assault-style rifles. But Kris Brown, a president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, finds the most hope in the Democrats’ surge in turnout in this summer’s primary elections.
“We are seeing a record number of people showing up at the polls,” Brown says while pointing out the gun violence epidemic is increasingly driving voters to the polls. “I am talking about women, youth demographics from 18 to 35, who have historically not shown up in big numbers and now are. If they show up [in November], they are going to vote with us.”
Another key difference is exit polls, from Virginia in 2017 and through the primaries, show taking on pro-gun rights candidates–long a political death wish (many attribute championing gun control cost Democrats the White House in 2000 and control of Congress in 1994–is becoming a winning stance. Where gun law reform once ranked six or seven on a list of issues important to Democratic voters, in recent races it came in at No. 2.
The next question to ask: When will the fact that Americans don’t love American gun laws lead to them being changed? Some think it will take a generation or longer, but Brown is more optimistic.
“If we get enough [of our voters] to turn out in this midterm, I think we have a very strong chance to take back the House,” she says. “Part of the lack of momentum isn’t just lacking the winning votes for our bills on the floor, it’s that leadership stops bills from even coming to the floor for a vote . . . Just allowing bills to come to the floor will put a huge amount of pressure on the other chamber, and that changes the dialogue around this issue.”
Of course to win the House, Democratic candidates need money: 91% of congressional races go to the candidate who raised the most money. And now they’re getting it.