By Kevin Bogardus - 04/24/13 09:00 AM EDT
The National Rifle Association (NRA) outspent supporters of new gun controls by hundreds of thousands of dollars as the Senate considered and ultimately rejected legislation, new documents show.
The NRA, along with its Institute for Legislative Action, spent about $800,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of the year, according to lobbying disclosure records. That’s an increase of roughly $100,000 over the same period last year, when gun legislation was dormant on Capitol Hill.
Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, said gun-rights groups derive their influence from their grassroots membership, not their treasury funds.
“The power of the gun lobby doesn’t come from spending on elections. The power of the gun lobby is I can go on the radio in Bismarck and get everyone to in North Dakota to call [Democratic Sen.] Heidi Heitkamp,” said Hammond. “Our power is our members.”
Gun Owners of America, which also vigorously fought the Senate bill, spent more than $313,000 on lobbying this past quarter, an increase over the $272,000 they dropped at this point in 2012.
The defeat of gun control legislation strengthened the perception in Washington that the NRA is the one lobby that can’t be beat.
Democrats blamed the failure of their bill on NRA “lies” about a background check plan from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), which failed to garner 60 votes. The NRA said the bill would have infringed on Second Amendment rights, and promised to score votes in favor of the measure against senators.
Gun control groups were frustrated by the outcome, but agreed that it would take more than money to defeat the NRA and other gun-rights groups.
“We have plenty of resources for lobbying. If hiring and matching the NRA for tasseled loafer to tasseled loafer would prove to have a positive effect, of course we do it. But that’s never been the problem,” said Mark Glaze, executive director for Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “The problem is the senators’ belief that the gun lobby will come after them when they run for reelection.”
Other big-name groups in the gun debate spent modest sums on lobbying in the first quarter.
Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit group set up by residents of Newtown, Conn., in response to last year’s school shooting, has lobbyists working on its behalf. Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti registered to lobby for the group in early March and has earned $20,000 so far.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly, has also turned to K Street for help, hiring Covington & Burling and The Majority Group. The latter firm reported earning $5,000 this past quarter, with former Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) and his ex-chief of staff, Rob Ellsworth, among the lobbyists working the account.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, marshaled its own forces on K Street. The group’s nonprofit action fund spent $250,000 for help from The JBH Group, The OB-C Group, The Raben Group and Thorsen French Advocacy.
The action fund for Bloomberg’s group has also filed a registration for its in-own house lobbying team, including Glaze, but has not yet to file its first quarterly report.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, another proponent supporter of new gun controls, has yet to file its first-quarter report for its in-house lobbying team, but Elmendorf | Ryan reported earning $20,000 from the group for the first three months of 2013. The group has also added new lobbying help this year by signing up The Ferguson Group.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tabled a gun control bill last week after the Senate failed to move forward on a number of amendments, including the Manchin-Toomey bill. But lobbyists don’t think Congress is finished with the issue.
“We are not going to do a victory lap until the 113th Congress is adjourned. We are not going to quit because they have kept saying that they will keep bashing our people until we cry ‘uncle,’ ” Hammond said.
Glaze said Mayors Against Illegal Guns would continue to lobby for gun restrictions, and suggested action on new legislation could come soon.
“We are doing everything we can to do to explain to members that this was a mistake that will be costly not just to them but to American lives,” Glaze said. “I would not be surprised if we are discussing this issue again on the floor of the Senate and the House sooner than you think.”
The NRA is not letting down its guard. On Tuesday, it ran full-page ads in several Beltway publications calling for lawmakers to act on mental health and school security.
“Moving forward, we encourage Congress to explore policies that could have prevented [the Newtown shooting]: fixing our broken health system and securing our schools,” said the open letter to Congress, signed by Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
An expansion of federal mental health programs proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) passed 95-2 last week before Reid tabled the broader legislation.
Hammond with the Gun Owners of America, which considers itself a more aggressive Second Amendment defender than the NRA, is neutral on the Harkin bill.
“We wouldn’t stand in the way of that. We wouldn’t think that’s wise, but we wouldn’t regard it as a ‘gun issue,’ ” Hammond said.
The vote on expanding background checks for gun sales is expected to have consequences in the 2014 election.
Hammond’s group has already sent out action alerts to its members, asking them to tell Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) how “disgusted” they are for supporting the Manchin-Toomey proposal. All three are running for reelection in 2014.
Gun control interests also plan to be active. Independence USA PAC, Bloomberg’s super-PAC, has already spent $2.2 million to influence an Illinois special election earlier this year, and will likely be active in other congressional races.
One lobbyist working to expand background checks for gun sales said the NRA might have overshot by opposing the Manchin-Toomey proposal, which was considered not as expansive as others’ legislation on background checks. Another tragedy like Newtown could send lawmakers drawing up tougher bills.
“I am left wondering at what cost to everyday gun owners and sportsmen the NRA won [with] such a victory. Clearly, the political dynamics around gun policy need to change, and they will change, as more Americans are paying attention to how their elected representatives are voting, and in this case exactly what they’re opposed to,” the lobbyist said.