More than a year after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Congress remains unwilling to pass even the most incremental legislation controlling access to lethal weapons. There is no better explanation for that than the role of money in politics.
Take the current impasse over the waiting period for background checks on purchases made at gun shows. Last May, in the wake of the Littleton shootings, the Senate voted by 51-50 (with Al Gore casting the tie-breaker) for a three-day waiting period on gun show purchases. Three out of four of the guns used in the Columbine attack were purchased at Denver-area gun shows. The House then adopted an amendment to limit the check to 24 hours, and then killed the bill carrying it. A glance at the money trail is instructive.
The 44 senators who said "no" to strong background checks on three separate roll call votes over the course of a week last May were the benefici-aries, on average, of nearly 29 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 40 senators who said "yes" on all three votes. The average take for gun rights supporters was $23,340, compared to $815 for the other side. That includes PAC money, itemized individual contributions, and independent expenditures and communications spending on behalf of senators from 1995 through 2000. The same pattern holds true in the House of Representatives. The 212 House members who voted the National Rifle Association's way on two roll call votes were the beneficiaries of 31 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 189 members who voted in favor of background checks--$11,195 to $355. That includes contributions from 1997 through 2000.
Overall, during that period, political action committees and individuals opposing gun control spent $2.3 mil-lion on TV commercials and other independent expenditures aimed at electing candidates opposed to gun control. That's on top of the $3.5 mil-lion given outright to federal candidates and parties.
During that same period, the gun control side has given a total of $235,000 to federal candidates and parties, and has spent another $22,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates supportive of stricter regulations. The NRA and its allies outspent gun control groups by a ratio of almost 23 to 1.
Nearly 90 percent of the public believe that gun owners should be required to obtain licenses, according to the University of Chicago's nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center. Overwhelming majorities also favor restricting individual gun purchases to no more than one a month and requiring safety training for gun purchasers. And 72 percent of gun owners support criminal background checks on gun buyers; about 66 percent support mandatory registration.
Lately, President Clinton has been visiting states that have passed sensible gun control measures to praise them for taking courageous steps against the power of the gun lobby. If he were serious about winning this fight--and not just making it a campaign issue to use against Republicans--he'd be visiting those states that have also passed comprehensive campaign finance reform, like Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Arizona. We're not going to break the power of the gun lobby without tempering the power of its money.
Would federal gun policy be different if lawmakers were not dependent on gun money to finance their campaigns? It's hard to believe that legislation would be so at odds with the public's desires if private campaign money were not part of the equation.
--Ellen S. Miller and Micah L. Sifry