With his declaration this week that voters should oust members of Congress who block gun safety laws, President Barack Obama has thrown down the political gauntlet to one of the nation’s most influential and deep-pocketed special interests: the gun lobby.
Americans who back gun safety must be “just as passionate” as gun lobbyists, urged Obama at a Tuesday press conference to unveil ten executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. He called on “voters who want safer gun laws, and who are disappointed in leaders who stand in their way, to remember at election time.”
It’s a tall order, given the National Rifle Association’s $348 million budget, and its legendary knack for mobilizing millions of members to exert grassroots pressure on lawmakers. The NRA and its gun rights allies spent $12 million on lobbying in 2014, compared with just $1.9 million by gun safety groups.
Second Amendment defenders also have showered millions on elections in direct campaign contributions, independent expenditures, and issue ads that use unregulated money to “educate” voters. The NRA alone spent just under $21 million through its PAC in the 2014 midterms, Federal Election Commission records show. By contrast, Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun safety group underwritten by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent less than $400,000 in the midterms. Gun control groups made few direct contributions.
But the gun picture is changing, and the gun safety lobby has begun to flex its political muscles on a broad new scale. It’s not just that a string of mass shootings, including the massacre of 20 Connecticut first-graders in 2012, has brought together a fired-up coalition of suburban moms, big-city mayors, and progressive activists. It’s that deep-pocketed donors such as Bloomberg have started to put serious money behind combating gun violence.
Everytown for Gun Safety had a $36 million budget as of 2013, according to the most recent public records, and Bloomberg has pledged to spend as much as $50 million on gun safety. Another leading gun safety group is Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC launched in part by former Arizona congresswoman and gun violence victim Gabrielle Giffords, an Obama ally. That super PAC spent $19.5 million in the 2014 midterms.
More importantly, gun safety advocates have taken a page out of the NRA’s playbook by building up millions of members, and mobilizing them at the state level. Everytown for Gun Safety has two grassroots arms that previously existed as standalone groups—Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Moms Demand Action now has chapters in all 50 states, and has won gun safety victories in Oregon, Washington state, and elsewhere. Ballot initiatives requiring background checks—turned back by Congress in 2013—are pending in Nevada and Maine. The group has amassed 3.5 million members since its launch three years ago—an army that is on its way to rivaling the five million members claimed by the NRA.
“We have really been able to create boots on the ground, and that was always the NRA’s playbook,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.
Of course, Obama’s executive action and his calls for voters to mobilize have yet to bear fruit. The NRA immediately assailed the executive actions, which will include steps to make background checks more efficient, better enforcement of gun safety laws on the books, and additional funding for mental health care, gun safety technology, and research.
“The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama administration, which has made no secret of its contempt for the Second Amendment,” said a statement released by Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. The NRA and its allies are expected to challenge the executive orders in court. Congress, too, may attempt to intervene, and any subsequent president could reverse the actions with a stroke of the pen.
The NRA, moreover, has also seen its funding increase as violence and terrorism have fueled passions on both sides of the gun divide.
Still, the toll of mass shootings—which totaled 330 in 2015 and helped push U.S. gun deaths to 52,606 last year—may be pushing the nation toward a tipping point. A full 86 percent of Americans favor universal background checks for all gun purchases, according to the most recent Gallup poll, taken in November of last year. As Obama noted this week, “the gun lobby is loud.” But gun safety advocates are starting to shout back.
“There are 80 million moms in this country,” says Watts. “And that is the passion that is going to win this fight. We have definitely bridged the intensity gap.”