That remains to be seen. But a closer look at the background check vote — and NRA influence generally — reveals that there’s more at play than just cash. A lot more. The backgrounds and histories of the two sponsors of the background check amendment — Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican — illustrate some of those complexities.
Both Manchin and Toomey have “A” ratings from the NRA — or at least they did until last month. Both represent states with large numbers of gun owners. Pennsylvania has more NRA members than any other state, and sells more hunting licenses each year (2.5 million in 2012) than any state except Wisconsin. And Toomey has been the Senate’s leading beneficiary of NRA largesse. In 2010 the NRA spent more than $1.79 million to elect him and an additional $1.15 million on negative advertising to defeat his Democratic opponent Joe Sestak Jr. Thanks in part to those court decisions that loosened campaign finance limits, the nearly $3 million the NRA spent on the Toomey race was more than three times the total amount spent by the NRA for all of Toomey’s Senate colleagues combined between 2000 and 2010.
Asked about its spending on Toomey — the most the NRA has ever spent on any candidate — NRA President Keene joked, “It just shows what money can do for you.” The reality, however, as Keene acknowledged, is that the NRA’s spending on that particular race — in which Toomey spent a total of $17 million against his opponent’s $12 million — may have very well made a critical difference. Toomey won by only two percent of the vote.
But when it came to Toomey’s vote on expanded background checks, other factors were at play. “The Manchin-Toomey proposal,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, “is very similar to a Pennsylvania law which was approved by a legislature that was Republican controlled, and signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Ridge with the support of the NRA.” According to Madonna, Pennsylvania’s expanded background checks, first approved in 1995 and amended in 1998, were non-controversial.
Defending his proposal on the Senate floor, Toomey was careful to affirm his pro-gun credentials, insisting that “there is absolutely no way that this can be construed as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.” He argued that his proposal was a modest effort “to make it a little bit more difficult for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to purchase handguns.” Toomey noted that under current Pennsylvania law, “anyone who buys a handgun anywhere at any time has a background check.” Having lived with such checks for more than a decade, Toomey apparently agrees with Madonna that they have been a non-issue for most of his constituents.
Nevertheless, the history of the background check issue still speaks to the power of the NRA. The organization knows it can’t win every race or every vote. But it can turn what was once a total non-issue — expanded background checks — into a matter of existential concern for senators. Making that case at the national level was particularly audacious because the NRA not only endorsed background checks for Pennsylvania back in 1995, in 1999 it supported them for the nation at large. Testifying before Congress following the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre testified that “it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”
Asked about the contradiction at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January, LaPierre equivocated, but said the NRA believes the current law is not being enforced and therefore should not be expanded. “I think the National Instant [Criminal Background] Check System the way it’s working now is a failure because this administration is not prosecuting the people that they catch” when they fail a background check.
A multi-pronged approach
Whatever the reasoning, clearly the NRA’s gifts were not a key factor for Toomey in deciding to sponsor the background check amendment. A total of 14 other senators who have benefited from gun lobby money also supported his amendment. On the other hand, three senators who never received a single dollar from gun rights interests — Begich and Heitkamp, the two Democrats mentioned earlier, as well as Republican Dan Coats of Indiana — nonetheless voted against expanded background checks last month. Overall, at least 60 of the Senate’s 100 members have benefited from at least $1,000 from the gun lobby during their careers.
Of course the background check amendment was not the only gun control proposal NRA supporters helped defeat. Senators also voted down a ban on assault weapons (40-60), a limit on large capacity magazines (46-54), and what might have seemed a thoroughly noncontroversial measure to make gun trafficking a crime (58-42). On top of that, they nearly passed (57-43) what is probably the NRA’s top legislative priority, a “reciprocity” measure that would have allowed citizens holding concealed weapons permits from any state to legally carry them in any other state that allows for concealed carry, even those with much tougher rules.
NRA President Keene says claims that his organization simply buys votes with campaign contributions completely misunderstand the way the lobby works. The NRA, he says, is active in every state on a wide range of gun issues, and uses a broad range of tactics. “In a typical state we represent 10 percent of the persuadable Second Amendment voters” on any given gun issue, Keene says. Those voters, he says, include Democrats, independents and union members who are not only passionate about gun rights, but who rely on NRA ratings of members and endorsements of candidates at the ballot box. Keene says these gun owners are willing to pick up a phone and make a call when asked and cited one senator who he said got 5,000 phone calls opposing expanded background checks prior to the Senate vote. “It isn’t the money but the endorsements” that motivate lawmakers, Keene said. And those endorsements come from voting the NRA line.
Among the 42 Republicans who voted against stronger background checks, 40 are rated A or A+ by the NRA, meaning they virtually always vote with the NRA. Among the 41 Democrats who voted in favor of stronger background checks, 35 received ratings of D or F from the gun organization.
Gregg Lee Carter, a professor of sociology at Bryant College in Rhode Island and the editor of Guns in American Society, generally agrees with Keene’s view on the role of money, although he states the case differently. “The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it’s how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail ’em, they call ’em, they fax ’em, they show up at meetings. The typical person who is for gun control is very different from the [pro-gun] person calling you or being right there, being an annoyance, hassling you personally. They’re much more activist than the other side and that’s what really produces their gains.”
Yet when it comes to campaign contributions, Carter says that the amount contributed by the NRA is most often a minuscule percentage of a House or Senate candidate’s overall campaign budget. “Money is important,” he says, “but that’s not what it’s really about.”
It is difficult to say with any precision how often lawmakers are swayed by the gun lobby’s money or its endorsements. But there’s no question some fear the NRA’s ability to make their lives miserable. Suffice to say that at least two Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 and voted with the NRA against tighter background checks — Begich of Alaska and Pryor of Arkansas — were probably unwilling to test their luck.
There are 26 senators up for reelection in 2014. Since none of these lawmakers have run since the Citizens United decision, the amounts they’ve received from both sides have been modest. In reality, the number of those who are actually vulnerable to pressure from either pro- or anti-gun money and lobbying is probably relatively small, and neither the NRA nor Bloomberg can be expected to throw large amounts of money at either Senate or House races where they have little chance of winning. What makes an incumbent fearful of pressure on gun issues is an inexact science, but a recent analysis by New York Times data guru Nate Silver suggests that a key factor to look at is the rate of gun ownership in a given state. Silver found that among the 26 senators up next year, there was a “near perfect” correlation between gun ownership in their states and how those senators voted on the background check amendment. Where gun ownership in a state was 42 percent or above, 13 of 14 senators voted “No”; where ownership was below 42 percent, 11 of 12 voted yes.