Even as mass shootings have become an increasingly common feature of American life, gun rights groups have used their considerable influence to keep gun control measures off the legislative agenda.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have been among the leading recipients of money from gun rights groups. And as congressional leaders, they have a unique role in the legislative process. No only can they vote against gun control bills. They can keep gun control legislation from ever reaching the floor.
Who are the gun rights groups?
While the National Rifle Association is undoubtedly the best know gun rights organization, there are other big spenders. In 2013, the National Association for Gun Rights outspent the NRA 2 to 1 on lobbying.
In recent years, gun rights groups have been increasing their campaign contributions and lobbying activities, which together added up to nearly $30 million in 2013-2014.
Far less money gets spent on the other side of this issue. In 2013 and 2014, gun control groups were outspent 7 to 1 by their gun rights opponents.
Where does this money go?
Most of the spending is used for lobbying, which means it doesn’t really go to political parties or candidates. Instead it goes to professional lobbysists, who use their knowledge and contacts to try to keep legislators informed about relevant issues and priorities.
Speaker Boehner was the top beneficiary of gun rights largesse across the 2013-2014 congressional cycle, taking $74,690 in contributions. Also high on the list, at number 4, was then-Senate minority leader McConnell.
Seeing Boehner and McConnell atop this list tells you something about the strategy of gun rights groups. They’re not trying to shore up vulnerable votes or win new allies. They’re trying to control the flow of legislation itself.
Come voting time, Boehner and McConnell are no different than their colleagues, with one yea or nay. Their real power lies in their ability to keep votes from ever happening, by preventing bills from ever reaching the floor.
When the Democrat-controlled Senate was embroiled in debate over new gun control legislation following the 2013 shooting in Newtown, Conn., all Boehner said is that he would review any legislation coming out of the Senate. For a slice of time, it seemed possible that the bill might pass the Senate and never get a vote in the House (in the end, Boehner’s decision didn’t matter; the bill died in the Senate).
|Top recipients, 2013-14|
|From gun rights groups|
|Boehner, John (R-OH)||$74,690|
|Gardner, Cory (R-CO)||$66,441|
|Cornyn, John (R-TX)||$65,225|
|McConnell, Mitch (R-KY)||$58,800|
|Cotton, Tom (R-AR)||$52,642|
|From gun control groups|
|Markey, Ed (D-MA)||$2,500|
|Braley, Bruce (D-IA)||$2,000|
|Manchin, Joe (D-WV)||$2,000|
|Barber, Ron (D-AZ)||$2,000|
|Kuster, Ann Mclane (D-NH)||$1,500|
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Is lobbying the reason we don’t have tighter gun control?
It may play a role, but it’s not the only reason.
Even outside the legislature, most Americans now say that protecting gun rights is a higher priority than gun control, according to polling from the Pew Research Organization. And that wasn’t true 10 or 20 years ago. Despite the increasing frequency of horrific mass shootings, support for new restrictions has actually gone down.
And then there’s the Second Amendment, which gives individuals the right to possess firearms. The Supreme Court has left room for reasonable restrictions, but the Second Amendment remains a hurdle that most democracies simply don’t face.
Will anything change, following the South Carolina shooting?
Gun rights groups were instrumental in blocking the gun control proposals that President Obama championed after the Newtown massacre.
Afterward, states all over the country actually chose to loosen their gun laws.
Following Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston, the president seemed resigned to the impossibility of new gun restrictions, lamenting what he called “the politics in this town.”
If he’s right, the NRA and the gun rights movement are a big part of the reason that national tragedies like these don’t spur national action on guns.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz