Gun Control Groups Raising More Cash Than NRA Since Newtown, Figures Show
Political donations to groups supporting gun control have overtaken money raised by the National Rifle Association and its allies in the 16 months since the Newtown school shooting, according to latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Though campaign finance experts say officially-declared money is the tip of the iceberg for both sides, the limited public figures available suggest recent efforts to build grassroots organisations to rival the political clout of gun rights advocates may be further advanced than previously thought.
The hopes of gun control advocates to overturn the long-held financial dominance of the gun lobby received a boost earlier this month when former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to spend at least $50m over the coming year supporting campaigns for enhanced background checks and other gun control measures.
Yet the NRA, which hosted an estimated 70,000 visitors at its annual conference in Indianapolis at the weekend, has long dismissed Bloomberg as an east coast billionaire lacking popular support.
Now, however, FEC figures show that other groups, such as the one run by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona, are out-raising the NRA through funding committees set up to gather small donations too.
The Americans For Responsible Solutions political action committee (Pac), set up by Giffords and her husband after she was shot in 2011, has so far raised more than $15m in the 2013/14 political cycle compared with $14.9m by the NRA's Pac over the same time.
Hundreds of small donations received by Americans For Responsible Solutions include $500 given in February by William Begg, a Connecticut doctor who runs the medical centre that treated many of the children shot at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown in December 2012.
In total, gun control groups declared $21.3m in contributions since the November 2012 election, versus $16.3m raised by gun rights groups, which include Gun Owners of America, Safari Club International, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Association for Gun Rights.
Independence USA, Bloomberg's Super Pac – which is not subject to individual donor limits – has recorded donations of $6.2m from him during the same timeframe, but is likely to absorb the bulk of his promised $50m in the run-up to November's midterm elections – further widening the overall gap in future.
Historically, gun rights activists have outspent those in favour of tighter laws by as much as 100 to 1, according to an analysis carried out a year ago by the Sunlight Foundation, which studied cumulative data up to the 2012 election.
Its analysis focused on their contributions to candidates, which are limited this early in the 2014 cycle, rather than the money they raised from donors, and indicates how one-sided fundraising has been in the past.
But Kathy Kiely, a campaign finance expert with the Sunlight Foundation, an independent Washington research group, noted that publicly declared money is only one part of the power of the gun lobby. “The NRA gives money and buys ads, but their real strength is in grassroots organising,” she said. “This is the big challenge for the gun control groups.”
Fear of negative advertising funded by independent issues groups, which do not have to be declared to the FEC in the same way, is credited with helping block efforts to pass a bill to introduce background checks on gun buyers last April.
But perhaps the clearest example of this came last September in a recall election in Colorado, which was prompted by a petition against Democrats who had voted for similar laws in the state senate.
John Morse, who lost his seat in what became a heated battle between competing gun lobby groups, says the power of the NRA is often exaggerated, but said it played an important part in his defeat, particularly in paying for campaign leaflets during the gathering of petition signatures.
“They bashed me right from the get-go that I was a puppet of Michael Bloomberg, but he didn't contribute a dime to this effort until 34 days before the election,” said Morse. “With all due respect, by that time, the horse was out of the barn, and the election was lost.”
Morse compared the challenge of motivating supporters of gun reform – who, polls show, heavily outnumbered the smaller but more passionate gun-rights activists – to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Madd) campaign in the 1980, which took a generation to shift public attitudes.
“It is difficult to get people to think about something until it hurts them personally,” said Morse. “We had a fair amount of passion on our side, but we couldn't ignite the people.”
Those involved in the increasingly well-funded gun control groups are actively modelling themselves on Madd in a bid to match the passion of the NRA's loyal core.
Mark Glaze, the director of Everytown for Gun Safety, the new umbrella group backed by Bloomberg, said: “You ultimately win these things not just through money and ads on the television; you win these things by getting more people to want what you want than the other side want – and that's a long process of going out into the country with clipboards and grinding it out.”
He added: “After Newtown, people are more aware, but most of them have never been asked to help. That's why we're going out there with moms with clipboards, stroller jams and lemonade stands.”
Everytown's predecessor groups have received donations from 1.5m people in total, averaging $53 per contribution. On the day of Everytown launch earlier in April, it had received $85,000 by 4pm, averaging $100 per donor.
“[The NRA] like to talk about this [Bloomberg] money, but the truth is we have lots of donors around the country who give an average of $54 per piece, and that funds much of our operation,” Glaze added. “But the NRA does not complain when Smith & Wesson hands them a $600,000 cheque to promote policies that sell more guns.”
Nevertheless, he paid a backhanded tribute the effectiveness of his opponents, particularly at convincing politicians of their power – real or imagined. “They were the only game in town, which is very motivating for congressmen in states where every dollar has to matter," said Glaze. “They are still the ones who can motivate a small but passionate group of people to vote for and against you.”
“We don't have to match them dollar for dollar, but members [of Congress] have to know that if they are going to face a $100,000 independent expenditure, we are going to have their backs,” he added.
In this battle, much of the money both raised and spent by both sides of the gun lobby will never appear in FEC data, which excludes so-called "independent expenditure" by issues groups rather directly going to political candidates, but Glaze insisted the fight is more evenly matched than ever before.
“The [published] numbers, which are purely about political money, vastly understate both the raising and spending,” he admits. “I operate on the assumption that it's a very large part of the NRA's spending, if not the bulk, and the same is true of us and the other gun groups.”
The NRA declined several requests to comment on the figures, but launched its conference on Friday with the slogan: "Bloomberg is one guy with millions; we are millions with $25."