On Eve of the March for Our Lives a New Report Examines the NRA’s Huge Influence in Washington

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  • David Vance

Americans from every corner of the nation are descending on Washington for the March for Our Lives to advocate reforming the nation’s gun laws in the wake of the latest tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida. The protestors face a powerful, entrenched, and well-funded Washington special interest in the National Rifle Association (NRA) who will fight any proposed reforms every step of the way. Today, Common Cause is releasing a new report – “Power Shift: How People Can Take on the NRA”- that examines the NRA and how it wields power in Washington and in state capitals around the nation. The report goes on to propose basic democratic reforms that can be undertaken to allow everyday citizens a chance to have their voices heard in the public square dominated by deep-pocketed special interests like the gun lobby.

“Americans expect and deserve a voice in Washington and in elected government bodies across the nation. With common sense changes to the way we elect our representatives and fund their campaigns, we can amplify the voice of every citizen,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn. “In a democracy, overwhelming public support for policies should be enough to enact them but too often that isn’t the case when special interests oppose them – but with simple reforms we can help restore government to one of the people, by the people and for the people. Working together, we can solve the underlying governance challenges so that our Congress and state legislatures are responsive to constituents, not the gun lobby.”

“Campaign contributions to the NRA’s preferred candidates are only a drop in the bucket of its election spending,” said Stephen Spaulding, Common Cause Chief of Strategy and External Affairs. “Empowered by Citizens United, the NRA uses its outside spending – and the threat of outside spending – to write the rules and shutdown debate about solutions to the gun violence crisis. That’s not how a democracy where voters come first is supposed to work.”

The NRA relies heavily on political spending, paid lobbying and a sophisticated organizing operation with a grassroots base. Some of the key findings in the report outline how the NRA maintains its influence:

  • In 2015 alone, the NRA paid more than $20 million to a single vendor that focuses on building the NRA’s membershi
  • The NRA has increased its federal lobbying spending dramatically in recent years, from $1,815,000 in 2007 to $5,122,000 in 2017.
  • The gun industry relies on the NRA’s lobbying power as a de facto trade association. Independent estimates show that corporate partners of the NRA have contributed between $19.3 million and $60.2 million to the organization.
  • The NRA also uses the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] to push its pro-gun laws at the state level.
  • NRA’s employees and PAC have contributed $23 million directly to federal candidates and parties since 1989, and about $17 million to state candidates and committees since 1990. These totals eclipse contributions from interests favoring tighter gun laws.
  • Most of the NRA’s spending does not flow directly to candidates but is spent independently of them. The NRA reported spending at least $54 million on independent expenditures during the 2016 federal election cycle alone, nearly double the $27 million it spent during the 2014 midterms and more than double the $19 million it spent during the 2012 presidential election.
  • About $34 million of the $54 million it spent on independent expenditures in federal elections in 2016 – more than 60% of its spending – flowed through the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.
  • In addition to its gun-related legislation, the NRA has lobbied against efforts to shine a light on secret spending in politics, including the DISCLOSE Act.

As the report details, surveys show that nearly 75% of NRA members support universal criminal background checks for all gun sales – a policy that the NRA vehemently opposes. Still, it provides other benefits to its members that grow its base. 

“The NRA wields enormous power in Washington and in states on behalf of the gun industry. It does so with a sophisticated strategy to cultivate a membership of motivated voters,” said Jesse Littlewood, Common Cause’s National Campaigns and Digital Director. “One of those tools is its significant grassroots presence which it manages to maintain despite the fact that it supports a number of policies that its membership overwhelmingly opposes.”

The new Common Cause report does not recommend specific policies to reduce gun violence, but it proposes solutions to enhance the political power of every American, including the overwhelming majority that supports significant changes to gun laws in the wake of firearm massacres like the Parkland tragedy. The solutions outlined in the report include:

  • Making voting more fair and accessible, including automatic voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and early voting
  • Ending the undemocratic practice of gerrymandering to ensure that voters choose politicians to represent them, rather than the other way around
  • Changing the way we fund political campaigns in order to empower all Americans, not just the very richest
  • Shining a light on secret spending in politics through enhanced disclosure

The report was written by Stephen Spaulding and Jesse Littlewood of Common Cause.

To read the report, click here