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‘Republicans are owned by them’: Gun lobby unmoved despite mass shootings

A vehicle displaying "license to carry" is seen near Robb Elementary School on May 26, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.Brandon Bell/Getty

The National Rifle Association’s annual meeting begins Friday in Houston, only days after a gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers with an assault rifle at a Texas elementary school, and as funerals are being planned in that reeling community less than 300 miles away.

Donald Trump is scheduled to address the gathering, as are Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz. Although the NRA extended its “deepest sympathies” to the families of the victims, few of its critics believe that even this latest slaughter will cripple its power to block gun control.

“Fear sells,” said John Rosenthal, president of Stop Handgun Violence, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group. “The NRA still has a big name. They may not have as much money now, but they still have a big stick.”

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The killings in Uvalde have intensified scrutiny of the gun-rights lobby once again. But previous mass shootings in US classrooms — including 2012 in Newtown, Conn., and 2018 in Parkland, Fla. — failed to bring about significant national firearms legislation, despite public pressure.

Protests are planned at the NRA convention, but the group’s core narrative — that guns are not the problem — remains unchanged.

Mass shootings do not appear to cow the NRA and its supporters, who often double down on their rigid insistence that any form of gun control infringes on the constitutional right to bear arms. After the Newtown shootings killed 26 people, including 20 children, spending on lobbying by gun-rights advocates nearly tripled.

“The gun lobby has had such a tremendous influence over the national conversation about guns,” said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “But a child’s right to be safe should far outweigh the right to have unfettered access to guns.”

On Wednesday, the NRA said that its “deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime.”

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“Although an investigation is under way and facts are still emerging, we recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal,” the NRA added. “As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

Despite a drop in membership in recent years, the NRA continues to wield outsize influence over the gun-control debate. The group contributes lavishly to congressional candidates, particularly Senate Republicans, who have stymied House-approved legislation to require stricter background checks for gun purchases.

“Republicans are owned by them, and that’s not going to change,” Rosenthal said.

All the top congressional recipients of gun-lobby money are Republicans, including three from Texas, according to OpenSecrets, a watchdog group that tracks campaign finance and lobbying. Conversely, the top recipients of donations from gun-control money are Democrats.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, data collected by OpenSecrets show that gun-rights groups such as the NRA are vastly outspending gun-control advocates in direct lobbying.

The NRA and allies such as Gun Owners of America spent a record $15.8 million on federal lobbying efforts in 2021 and $2 million in the first quarter of 2022, OpenSecrets reported. By contrast, gun-control organizations spent a record $2.9 million in 2021 and $609,000 in the first quarter of 2022.

“They’ve obviously done a lot of organizing, a lot of lobbying, and a lot of investment in politicians,” Zakarin said of the NRA. “They’ve just been a constant presence in this way.”

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Paradoxically, the steady stream of gun-rights money continues at a time when the NRA has been struggling. Membership has decreased in recent years; the group filed unsuccessfully for bankruptcy; its leaders have had their spending scrutinized; and legal fees have skyrocketed.

Still, its annual meeting this weekend in Houston, about 300 miles from Uvalde, is attracting Republican star power, including Abbott, who in 2015 urged his fellow Texans to buy more guns.

“I’m EMBARRASSED,” Abbott wrote then on Twitter, directing his comments to the NRA’s account. “Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let’s pick up the pace Texans.”

Other attendees will include Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts Gun Owners’ Action League, a nonprofit advocacy and training group affiliated with the NRA.

Wallace said the Texas shootings underscore what he called an overriding need to flag and treat mental-health troubles, which he called “the most common denominator” in mass shootings. Stricter gun control, he argued, is not the answer.

“It seems there is quite a pattern here of people with severe mental health issues that are committing these atrocities,” Wallace said. “Unfortunately, no one wants to have those conversations.”

Wallace said he expected that 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos, who was killed by police in Uvalde, would be shown to have had mental-health problems.

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Rosenthal, the president of Stop Handgun Violence, said Massachusetts has proven that gun control works. The state’s death rate from guns has dropped 40 percent from 1994, when lawmakers began looking seriously at gun control, and remains one of the lowest in the nation, he said.

A critical way to weaken the NRA’s clout is to change the Senate’s filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to advance legislation, Rosenthal said. Reaching that total is impossible without some Republican support in the Senate, which is evenly divided between the parties.

As a result, Rosenthal added, the Senate is thwarting the will of a majority of Americans, whom polls consistently show in favor of stronger gun control.

In the meantime, the NRA continues to flex its muscle despite a flurry of challenges.

In January 2021, the NRA announced it had filed for bankruptcy protection, months after New York’s attorney general sued to dissolve the group over allegations that top executives illegally diverted funds for lavish trips, no-show contracts for associates, and other questionable spending.

The NRA’s filing listed between $100 million and $500 million in assets, and between $100 million and $500 million in liabilities, yet the group asserted at the time that it was “in its strongest financial condition in years.”

Four months later, a federal judge dismissed the NRA’s bankruptcy filing, barring the organization from incorporating in Texas instead of New York, where state prosecutors had brought suit. The judge dismissed the case on grounds that bankruptcy was not sought in good faith.

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That ruling prompted calls in July 2021 from Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, to investigate the NRA for bankruptcy fraud, accusing it of abusing the system to seek protection.

In March 2022, a New York judge delivered a partial victory to the NRA in the state lawsuit, blocking state Attorney General Letitia James from disbanding the group, which is incorporated in the state and was chartered as a nonprofit there in 1871.

However, the state judge also ruled that James could still still seek removal of the NRA’s longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre.

Sarah Ryley of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.