All quotations and statistics are from the article “Targeting Success” by Kelly D. Patterson and Mathew M. Singer found in Interest Group Politics Seventh Edition edited by Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis.
This will be broken up in a series of posts, hopefully, all of it will be up by the end of tonight.
The NRA’s Impact on Government and Elections: The Bare Essentials
It seems odd after calling the NRA the most powerful lobbying group in America that we have not spent all of our time on focusing on their lobbying issues and their overall impact on the actions of government. We’ve already covered their impact on helping craft legislation in the 1930s and their switch to a more political organization after 1968.
So, where to start…let’s start with this. Starting in 1994, the NRA began to use its monthly magazines, American Rifleman and American Hunter to campaign more actively against certain legislation.
After the tragedy of Columbine, there was increased public pressure on government officials for additional restrictions on gun sales. A week after the Columbine shootings, polls showed that a 9 percent increase in the number of Americans who considered tougher gun laws the best way to prevent violence. Surprisingly, there were gun bills on the floor of the Colorado legislature that would have reduced restrictions on concealed weapons. Those bills were postponed. Nearly a dozen states followed suit. The U.S. Senate passed a gun control bill that, ”restricted gun sales at gun shows and pawnshops.” Al Gore, following his Constitutional duty as Vice President, cast the deciding vote. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said, “what you just saw was the [National Rifle Association] losing its grip on the U.S. Senate.” President Clinton proposed a waiting period for all gun purchases and making parents responsible for some gun crimes committed by their children. He hosted a meeting on youth violence with most major gun makers but the NRA did not attend. Gun manufacturers agreed to support increased restrictions on gun ownership, breaking away from the NRA.
The House of Representatives passed a gun control measure that was not as strict as the Senate. The NRA spent over $3 million in lobbying in trying to prevent the House from passing the same bill that the Senate passed. Clinton tried to pressure the members of the House to act but ultimately his words were not as powerful as the money thrown in. A compromise bill between the House’s version and the Senate’s version “was never presented by the conference committee to the full Congress.”
So, what is it that makes the NRA so powerful and how do they influence lawmakers? Well, NRA support only goes to the candidates that support the NRA’s objective which is “staunch defense of the Second Amendment.” Even candidates who have been supported in the past by the NRA are not guaranteed to garner their support if there is a candidate who provides a better defense of the 2nd Amendment.
Patterson and Singer detail the five levels that the NRA gets involved in campaigns and elections. “First, it grades candidates and publishes those grades in American Rifleman.” Candidates can receive grades anywhere from A to F. An A grade would be given to a candidate who “most actively help the NRA to achieve its goals.” An F grade would be given to a candidate who “actively oppose[s] the NRA.” Typically, C candidates would be candidates who vote for the NRA on issues but do not actively lead. The NRA tends to focus “many of its efforts in those races where an A candidate face[s] an F or even a C.” In the NRA’s eyes, it’s not enough to vote on issues that defend 2nd Amendment Rights but you have to be sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills that defend it.
“Endorsement of a candidate is the second level of involvement.” You have to be a faithful ally of the NRA in order to receive its endorsement. The national organization may endorse a candidate even if the local organization opposes it. The candidates that are endorsed are printed on the cover of the November issue of American Rifleman “along with contact information for the local grassroots coordinator.” The NRA also sends out a letter to the endorsed candidates outlining the reasons why they’re endorsed. The candidates are allowed to hand out this letter to constituents.
The next level is that the NRA contributes money to the candidate. “It contributes to loyal incumbents who have long fought the organization’s battles, and it targets its contributions to those close races in which a contribution can make a difference.” The authors note that the NRA rarely gives the full legal amount and only gives to candidates that ask.
The fourth level, “the NRA uses in-kind contributions.” These include but are not limited to fundraising and meet-and-greet events, to help the candidate. Typically, the national office tries to include local members in these events so that the candidate is aware of members who can help them out.
The fifth level is that the “NRA uses independent expenditures to help its candidates.” These expenditures might be running advertisements or banking telephone calls and everything in between. The American Rifleman urges people to help volunteer for candidates, however they can.
Jim Wilkinson, former spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that one reason that they like working with the NRA is that it “does a great job of educating their members, especially in the battleground congressional districts.”