How gun control activists learned from the NRA

Democrats this week used the one-year anniversary of the deadly Parkland, Fla., high school shooting to advance legislation cracking down on access to firearms in states across the country.

Bills moved not in blue states, but in purple states like Nevada and New Mexico where Democrats hold newfound political power.


And on Capitol Hill the day before Thursday’s anniversary, a House committee approved a measure that would require background checks on firearm sales. Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathGiffords group unveils gun violence memorial on National Mall Six ways to visualize a divided America Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing MORE (D), the mother of a teenager killed by gun violence who represents a suburban swing district in deep-red Georgia, cast an emotional vote for the legislation.

Earlier in the week, Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and one of the faces of the most prominent gun safety organizations in the country, raised more than $1 million the day after announcing he would run for a Senate seat in Arizona, a hotbed of hands-off libertarianism.

In all, the week illustrated the new normal of gun politics in America, an evolution that has altered a balance of power once so skewed toward gun rights advocates that those who favored restrictions on guns found it easier to simply shut up.

For two decades, the ghost of the 1994 Republican wave, fueled by the National Rifle Association’s heavy spending against Democrats who voted in 1993 to advance the Brady Bill and a federal ban on assault weapons, has haunted the debate over gun control in the United States.

Republicans aligned themselves with the powerful NRA, whose members would vote en masse against anyone who pushed for tougher restrictions. Rural and suburban Democrats shied from the issue, and urban Democrats found themselves in a distinct minority in their own party.

“Even the supporters of gun safety knew back then that it was not smart to suggest that Congress do something,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the group Kelly co-founded with and named for his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).


But the Democratic Party’s recent embrace of gun control proposals — not just in legislatures and Congress, but on the campaign trail itself — hints that the wraith is gone. And those who now advocate for gun safety and control measures say that is because they learned from, and adopted the techniques of, the NRA itself.

“Our founding story, I think, definitely looked at the NRA as an organization that has been very effective at what it set out to do,” Ambler said. “We definitely looked at where they had succeeded, but also at where they had failed.”

The catalysts, according to those watching the gun debate play out, have been a series of mass shootings that have brought together a coalition of disparate activist groups.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., in 2012 gave birth to Moms Demand Action, which now counts nearly 6 million backers across the country. An assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 brought the LGBT community on board.

Parkland spurred a mass of student protests — a movement that brought so much pressure that even the conservative Florida legislature passed a handful of gun safety bills in the months following the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that claimed the lives of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Over the last eight years or so, what you’ve seen is a movement that has grown in capacity and resources and become more strategic in its policy goals,” said Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University who studies the gun control movement. “More and more groups of people who are affected by gun violence have organized.”

Those groups have been buoyed by donors who now help the gun safety movement compete with the NRA financially.

Two decades ago, groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Handgun Control Inc. played minor roles in electoral and legislative politics. Today, groups like Giffords and Everytown for Gun Safety, funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are matching — and, in the 2018 midterms, vastly exceeding — the NRA’s political spending.

Those two groups combined now have 30 lobbyists bending ears in Congress, compared with 25 for the NRA, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, though the NRA still spends about twice as much lobbying Congress as do the gun safety groups.

“Those organizations are now engaging in electoral politics at a hugely greater rate than the original gun violence prevention groups did,” Goss said.

Even the NRA has taken note.

“They’re trying to emulate us, and they definitely have an unlimited amount of resources so they can spend whatever they want,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman. “What they can’t replace is the grassroots support.”

The NRA does not publish its membership numbers, and Baker said the group’s membership is at an all-time high.

But election results from November 2018, when dozens of candidates the NRA supported lost to Democrats who explicitly embraced gun control measures, show the issue has become as important a motivating factor for restriction supporters as for gun rights backers.

Giffords spent heavily to elect Democratic Reps. Angie Craig (Minn.), Jason CrowJason CrowManagers seek to make GOP think twice about Trump acquittal The GOP is in a fix: Gordian knot or existential crisis? Thousands of troops dig in for inauguration MORE (Colo.), Lizzie Fletcher (Texas) and Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonTrump the X-factor in Virginia governor race Xinjiang forced labor complex is growing — President Biden should work with Congress to curb it Acting chief acknowledges police were unprepared for mob MORE (Va.) -- all of whom ousted NRA-backed incumbents. Everytown spent more than $2.7 million for McBath, a former organizer for the group.

Pro-gun control Democrats also won in places like Orange County, Calif., Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania.

“The myth has died. This is not a third rail of politics. It might just be the opposite,” said John Feinblatt, who runs Everytown. “We saw in the midterms that it invigorated voters.”

NRA-backed candidates won critical races for Senate seats in states like Florida, Indiana and Missouri. But Democrats won governorships in states — like Nevada and New Mexico — where gun control bills are now atop the agenda.

The 2020 race for the White House will test the question of just how far gun politics has evolved since the NRA knocked off so many Democrats a quarter-century ago. The field of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination is almost uniformly for stricter gun control laws, while President TrumpDonald TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report MORE is firmly in the NRA’s corner, after the group spent tens of millions of dollars getting him elected in 2016.

Gun safety groups seem to welcome the test ahead.

“The politics have diametrically shifted, and people roundly appreciate that guns is an advantageous thing for Democrats to talk about,” Ambler said. “You don’t have to beat around the bush.”