Just How Powerful Is The NRA In The Post-Sandy Hook World?

Is the NRA now just a powerless “man behind the curtain”?; courtesy of The Wizard of Oz

Is the NRA now just a powerless “man behind the curtain”?; courtesy of The Wizard of Oz

Just how powerful is the NRA?

Is it the dreaded bogeyman that sends children scurrying to closets and parents checking under beds, the NRA that has been mythologized as a monolith of absolute power and tyranny that can wipe out careers and destroy legislation with the wave of a “cold, dead hand”? Or has it become the “man behind the curtain,” the bumbling Frank Oz of “The Wizard….” who pretends to power but actually has none?

There may have been a time when the National Rifle Association and its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, were considered all-powerful. In fact, Media Matters ran a piece this week discussing some of the more salient political events that have been impacted by a candidate’s allegiance, or the lack thereof, to the NRA. One featured segment was a December 16th discussion between Fox’s Chris Wallace and Joe Lieberman on the “lesson” of the 2000 Presidential campaign when Al Gore made clear his support of the assault weapons ban:

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: Back in the 90’s you supported the Brady law, which called for a five-day waiting period.


WALLACE: You supported the assault weapons ban. Then in 2000, you and Al Gore campaigned around the country and you lost, and a lot of people took as a lesson, part of it was in states like Tennessee and West Virginia, the fact that you were pro-gun control. And quite frankly ever since Democrats have been scared of touching that issue. [Fox News Sunday12/16/12]

Which has been the tone and tenor of the gun debate for many years….not “touching that issue.” Yet in another segment of the Media Matters piece, a Meet the Press discussion between David Gregory and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shines a slightly altered light on the subject. Gregory also posits that the Assault Weapons Ban came at “tremendous political cost to Democrats” and that there has been “declining support since 1990 for gun control measures,” but Bloomberg, a staunch gun-control supporter, had a different take than Lieberman:

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, MAYOR: I think the President through his leadership could get a bill like that through Congress. But at least he has got to try, that’s his job.

DAVID GREGORY, HOST: But isn’t it significant that he may only be able to try? That we’ve seen declining support since 1990 for stricter gun control measures? We’ve seen the assault weapons ban come and go. Tremendous political cost to Democrats when they first got it passed?

BLOOMBERG: What’s the political cost? The NRA’s number one objective this time was to defeat Barack Obama for a second term. The last time I checked the election results he won and he won comfortably. This myth that the NRA can destroy political careers is just not true.

GREGORY: It’s not a myth that after the assault weapons ban was passed there was a huge political price for Democrats to pay and nearly 20 years later they don’t want to touch the issue.

BLOOMBERG: Well it is true that they lost a lot of seats then. The cause and effect isn’t quite so clear. And what happened then isn’t what happens now. [Meet the Press12/16/12]  [Emphasis added.]

It seems unarguably clear that “what happens now,” as opposed to what happened before, is a direct result of the growing critical mass of rage against the staggering gun deaths of the last decade, coupled, on the other hand, with the increasing popularity of the kind of semi-automatic combat artillery used in the Sandy Hook school shooting (in fact, there’s a head-shaking piece in The Atlantic today called “Gun Enthusiasts Stock Up on Semi-Automatics at New Orleans Weapons Expo“). A tipping point has been reached, one that has led a greater portion of our country – the ones not stocking up on military artillery – to cry out that “something must be done”…and that something can’t rest on whether or not the NRA allows Congressmen and women, or the President, to act.

So let’s go back to the initial question: is the NRA really that powerful?

The most current answer seems to lie not only in the aforementioned tipping point, but in the election that preceded it. The Sunlight Foundation, a “non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency,” has done an analysis of not only of the funding the NRA has put behind elections in the last 22 years, but the return on that funding. In a blog piece on their site titled, “Explaining the power of the National Rifle Association, in one graph,” they make the point:

Here are the data: The NRA has spent 73 times what the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has spent on lobbying in the 112th Congress ($4.4 million to $60,000, through the second quarter of 2012), and 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign spent on the 2012 election ($18.6 million to $5,816). (One caveat on the data is that the NRA itself does a very poor job of accurately reporting its spending, and we must rely on its self-reports.)

What these numbers don’t capture is that the NRA boasts a grassroots  list of millions of voters and the resources to mobilize these voters at even the slightest threat of gun control laws. Gun control advocates have nothing that comes close. In 2012, the NRA spent at least $682,595 on communication costs, that is, political messages to its own members.

When it comes to the debate on gun policy, Congress is only hearing from one side.

NRA vs. Brady Campaign election spending; graph by Amy Cesal @  Sunlight Foundation

NRA vs. Brady Campaign election spending; graph by Amy Cesal @ Sunlight Foundation

Stunning numbers; and yet the Sunlight Foundation’s own figures on how the NRA did on election day indicate a dismal, appalling return for that gargantuan effort. From Salon in a piece bluntly titled, NRA also lost big on Election Day:

The Sunlight Foundation analyzed election spending by the National Rifle Association, and determined that the group had a less than 1 percent return on its more than $11 million investment. [Emphasis added.]

The study, based on FEC reporting, found that the NRA backed 27 winning candidates, but only 0.42 percent of the $11,787,523 it spent on the election went to those candidates. Instead, 78 percent of the money went to opposing Democrats.

From the (Sunlight Foundation) report:

– 0.81% of $10,955,688 spent in the general election and ending in the desired result.

– Supported 27 winning candidates ; 0.42% of money went to supporting winning candidates.

– Opposed 5 losing candidates; 0.39% of money went to opposing losing candidates.

A trend? Those intent on putting some teeth in new legislation related to gun control hope so. And that group is not necessarily as polarized from the NRA as you might think. In fact, many of those who want better and more sensible gun control laws are members of the NRA. In a piece titled, Surprising NRA Gun Owners Poll – Most Favor Sensible Restrictions, at focus is a poll done by Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, which reveals the somewhat stunning result that even significant numbers of NRA members want change in gun legislation. Read the article; you, too, will likely be surprised!

So the answer to our question – “just how powerful is the NRA?” – includes a compelling mix of respondents: NRA members who want sensible gun laws, an electorate that no longer blindly follows the dictates of the NRA, and constituents of a Congress that has been warned that pledging allegiance to the NRA will no longer be tolerated; not when thousands of our fellow citizens (12,000 of whom are murdered by guns per year), most recently a classroom full of children, are paying the price for our country’s love-affair with guns. The answer is: the power has shifted. Bowing down to the leadership of the NRA and the lobbyists who relentlessly push their product at the behest of profit-driven manufacturers will no longer be the order of the day. They are the “men behind the curtain,” pulling levers that no longer have the power of the past.

Let’s make sure they know that in the days, conversations, and legislation to come.


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