After the Newtown massacre one year ago Saturday, a majority of Americans believed that some kind of gun safety bill was bound to pass Congress in 2013. One year later, the effort to reform our gun laws, fueled by nothing more than moral outrage and a half-assed lobbying campaign, has floundered. As shock gives way to cynicism, the Sunlight Foundation has put together a simple yet revelatory graph that finally explains why gun reform failed, and essentially, it comes down to this: the other side had more money.
For the past 10 years, anti-reform coalitions have consistently spent millions more on lobbying efforts than safety advocates. Even after Newtown, when a flush of new money was injected into lobbying efforts on both sides, the anti-reform effort was spending $12.2 million to gun safety’s $1.6 million — or about seven times more. As Gallup data shows public support for gun safety correlating broadly to years where reform efforts were well funded, the necessity for gun reform of competing, dollar for dollar, with its opponents has never been more urgent.
However, when it comes to financing their lobbying efforts, anti-reform forces have a much better system in place. First of all, the NRA and other groups that spend directly on federal lobbying themselves receive massive financial support from the gun manufacturing industry. In other words, the anti-reform movement benefits from having a large, lucrative industry — one with a financial stake in opposing new safety regulations. If there were a single industry that were docked dollars and cents every time someone was shot in America, then maybe the reform movement would have a similar sponsor. But there isn’t, and this might be one advantage the NRA always keeps.
However, industry backing is just the icing on the cake. The NRA already has a national, grassroots fundraising operates that alone can sustain millions of dollars in annual lobbying. It received $100 million (approximately half of its budget) in 2010 from voluntary contributions alone. The NRA also has agreements with many gun manufacturers and retailers where they receive a contribution with every gun sale. Additionally, the NRA Foundation gives out thousands of community grants every year, benefiting everything from gun safety programming to the Boy Scouts and no doubt contributing to the loyalty they enjoy from their base. The NRA doesn’t have to rely on current events or outrage to finance their federal lobbying efforts; they have a financing machine that allows them to have an institutional presence in Washington.
In a Citizens United world where corporations are people and money is speech, this is how democracy works folks, and this is why we lost. Successful gun reform won’t come the day after Sandy Hook PAC or Mayors Against Guns is formed, nor even the year after. Neither can the 58% of Americans who supported stronger gun regulations one year ago leave the financing of this effort to liberal billionaires or outraged grandmothers. If we want a safer America, it seems we are going to have to pay for it.