After Sandy Hook shootings, NRA campaign clout still formidable

Organization spends millions defending its interests, but may briefly be on defensive in wake of shooting

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Illinois gun owners and supporters fill out NRA applications while participating in an Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day convention.

Seth Perlman/AP

The National Rifle Association is keeping silent in response to calls for gun control measures in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Yet the massive trail of political money spent by the group shows the potent force any proposals for new restrictions will likely face when the anger and dismay over Sandy Hook recedes.

Since President Barack Obama took office, the NRA has spent millions to lobby Congress on gun legislation and bankroll the campaigns of supportive candidates. From 2009 through the first three quarters of 2012, the NRA spent more than $8.5 million to lobby on gun bills, according to mandated federal lobby disclosure records, most often to block proposed limits on weapons and ammunition access or support efforts to expand the right to carry concealed weapons in public. Direct federal lobbying accounts for only a small portion of the association’s total spending to influence state and federal gun policy; according the NRA’s 2010 tax return, it spent more than $20 million on “legislative action” that year. Much of the recent legislation on concealed weapons, in particular, has been at the state level.

Although federal lobbying disclosure records do not include itemized NRA spending on each bill, documents show that the association took sides on a number of initiatives, including a 2011 bill introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would have banned magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Both Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, and Jacob Roberts, the masked gunman who killed two at an Oregon mall shooting earlier this month, carried high-capacity clips and civilian versions of the military M-16. Lautenberg has pledged to reintroduce the bill, which languished in committee during the 2012 session.

An assault weapons ban in effect from 1994 to 2004 included a ban on new high-capacity magazines. Gun-control advocates argue that large-capacity magazines allow criminals to quickly inflict mass casualties, since shooters do not need to reload until a clip is empty. The NRA, however, has said banning large-capacity magazines puts gun owners at risk at the hand of criminals. The ability to fire multiple shots improves “their odds in a defensive situation”, the NRA has said, particularly when assaulted by multiple assailants.

The association also lobbied against a second failed Lautenberg bill that would have prohibited online ammunition sales and required reporting of bulk ammunition purchases.

In addition to wielding its power in Congress, the NRA has long provided financial ammunition for candidates who share its values. Over the course of the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, the NRA’s political action committee contributed a total of more than $2 million to federal candidates, the overwhelming majority of whom were Republicans, according to Center for Responsive Politics. Since 2009, the NRA has also put more than $1 million into state campaigns, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

The NRA has long been both respected and feared for its political muscle. In response to the 1994 assault weapons ban, the group is widely credited with helping engineer a Republican takeover of Congress. By contrast, more recently some NRA-backed candidates have lost, including Josh Mandel, the 2012 Republican challenger to incumbent Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was defeated for a Wisconsin Senate seat by Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

Liberals are hoping that revulsion over the Connecticut shooting could further alter the political dynamic regarding the NRA. At least one beneficiary of the organization’s money appears to be backing away from NRA talking points. On Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who received $4,500 from the association for his 2012 campaign— the only Senate Democrat to receive NRA money, according to Center for Responsive Politics— announced that he may be open to gun control initiatives.

Rep. John Yarmuth, a moderate Kentucky Democrat, said Monday that the NRA is using its deep pockets to “instill fear in our citizens and politicians.” In a statement posted on his website, the pro-gun Yarmuth said the NRA “wants us to believe that the best protection against the irresponsible and lethal use of guns is for everyone to be armed. And while no specific gun regulation may have prevented the deaths of the 20 Sandy Hook Elementary children … the answer simply cannot be a gun in every elementary school lunchbox.”

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.