18 Apr 2013

How powerful is America’s pro-gun lobby?

Campaigners are blaming lobby groups like the National Rifle Association for blocking gun control legislation. Is the NRA really more powerful than the President of the United States?

NRA supporter

The question is headline news in the US cross-party proposal to introduce tougher background checks for gun buyers has failed to pass a key vote in the Senate, despite being a watered-down version of what gun control campaigners wanted.

The move to extend checks to firearms sales at gun shows and over the internet was supported by US President Barack Obama and many relatives of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.

But 41 Republican and five Democrat senators voted together to kill the proposal. An attempt to ban assault-style rifles failed as well, along with a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, although those measures had already been all but dropped.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun owner who became a gun control supporter after being shot in the head two years ago, accused senators of “cowardice,” saying their decisions were “based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association”.

Her husband Mark Kelly said: “I think you have more than 350 members of Congress that are very afraid of the gun lobby…I think they’re more concerned with the gun lobby than they are with what the president thinks on this issue.”

Lie claims

Mr Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington” and accused the gun lobby and its allies of lying about the effects of the bill.

He said: “Instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. They claimed that it would create some sort of Big Brother gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite.

“This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry – plain and simple, right there in the text. But that didn’t matter.

“And unfortunately, this pattern of spreading untruths about this legislation served a purpose, because those lies upset an intense minority of gun owners, and that in turn intimidated a lot of senators.”

Democrat Senator Joe Manchin, a former gun supporter who changed his position after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut and became one of the bill’s sponsors, also accused the NRA of lying.

The organisation responded with a statement saying the bill “would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution”.

Opponents of the restrictions said the proposals would not have cut gun crime.

Why do politicians fear the NRA?

The organisation claims to have 4.5 million members, and it is one of the richest interest groups in Washington.

According to opensecret.org, the NRA spent nearly $3m on lobbying in 2011 and in 2012, and during the 2012 election cycle it shelled out more than $25 million on advertisements, mostly supporting Republican candidates or opposing Democrats.

The Sunlight Foundation said that 88 percent of Republicans and 11 per cent of Democrats in both houses of Congress had received a contribution from the NRA at some point in their career.

As well as making donations, the NRA seeks to influence public opinion by endorsing certain candidates, and it gives all US politicians a grade from A to F based on how they have voted on gun control measures.

The NRA said it would mark down anyone who voted for gun control or even voted for a debate on the bill.

Many US commentators see NRA endorsement as a powerful vote-winner, particularly for “red state” Democrats who want to hold on to power in rural, traditionally Republican areas.

Gun enthusiast at NRA convention

Paper tiger?

US author and journalist Paul Waldman has written a series of analytical articles debunking what he says are myths about the real ability of the NRA to sway elections, calling the organisation a “paper tiger”.

He told Channel 4 News: “Are these senators scared or are they actually voicing their true sentiment? For most of the people who voted down this particular bill, it is what they genuinely believe.

“There are a few people who genuinely are afraid. A few Democrats joined with the Republicans to filibuster this bill. They have become convinced over the years that just to touch the gun issue means death: they are not going to survive.

“If you are a person who represents a state where their party is not very popular, you live in terror all the time.

“But the question is, on something like this, if you are talking about background checks, where 90 per cent of the public support the idea, how much would you really be risking to vote for it?

“Are you really going to lose an election? The evidence is really non-existent.

“The NRA are not very successful at getting their people elected but they convince everyone that they are. For 20 years it wasn’t that no gun control laws were passed, it was that nothing came up at all.

“Every time people even considered a bill, it wouldn’t get anywhere. The NRA’s purpose is just to stop anything from happening on this issue, and you can reasonably say that nobody has been as successful as them in making sure that nothing happens.”

What next for gun control?

Mr Obama has vowed to continue campaigning for new gun laws, saying: “I see this as just round one. Sooner or later, we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it.”

The Democrats said before the vote that the issue would be brought back before the Senate, giving the gun control lobby more time to make its case.

Mrs Giffords and Mr Kelly said in a joint statement: “We will use every means possible to make sure the constituents of these senators know that their elected representatives ignored them, and put Washington DC special interest politics over the effort to keep their own communities safer from the tragedy of gun violence.”

The latest opinion polls suggest public support for enhanced gun control may be weakening. An Associated Press-GfK poll this month showed that 49 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, down from 58 percent in January.