The Battle Lines Over Guns Often Drawn by Funding

Gabrielle Giffords and Obama
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was severely wounded in a shooting in her home state of Arizona, hugs Obama during last year’s State of the Union address / Photo from Creative Commons

Story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address Monday, promising to focus on climate control and pursue greater equality for gay Americans. Those issues, however, are just the beginning of the challenges he must face as he starts his second term.

Fixing a broken global economy still ranks first in the minds of many Americans, along with ending our conflicts abroad. On the domestic front there’s no getting around the debate over gun control, with both sides digging in for a fight in Congress – spurred on by a mounting body count that now includes a family in New Mexico, shot dead by a 15-year-old boy.

But as much attention is being paid to the politics, the fight over whether our nation’s gun laws are too strict or too loose has also raised the tricky question of how money factors in to both sides’ push to get their point across.

Emerging from the sudden debate on gun control elicited by the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., is a discussion of how gun laws are made, and who is spending money to sway votes. In an opinion piece in USA Today last week, former Arizona Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly took aim at national funding imbalances as they rolled out their newly formed political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions.

The column came 10 days previous to Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s extensive plan for combating gun violence. A victim of gun violence herself two years ago, a still-recovering Giffords attempted to spotlight the need for more money to counter the overwhelming fundraising advantage of the National Rifle Association and state and local organizations.

“[Americans for Responsible Solutions] will invite people from around the country to join a national conversation about gun violence prevention, will raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby, and will line up squarely behind leaders who will stand up for what’s right,” Giffords wrote of the purpose of her PAC.

Although Gallup polls show that almost 58 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, gun control groups are being outspent by their opponents by eye-popping amounts in the battle for Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, non-partisan that tracks campaign spending, the National Rifle Association alone spent 10 times the amount of all gun control groups combined in 2011 and 2012, spending 2 million dollars on lobbying in 2012. In addition, 1 million was directly given to candidates and political action committees.

Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handguns, told JJIE and The Chicago Bureau that there is a major disparity between lobbying funds and public opinion.

“We’re far outspent. They have a dues paying membership that brings in millions. They also, in addition to that, get a lot of money from the manufacturers,” Daley said.

However, Daley disagreed with the idea that such imbalances necessarily reflect the views of Americans accurately.

“The majority of money that they’re getting is actually from the gun manufacturers, not necessarily from membership. So you do get a strong amount of money that way,” Daley said. “Their membership does not always agree with them, either. I don’t necessarily think that all of them know what they’re doing, half the time, because the majority of individuals are for reasonable gun control laws.”

Yet Dave Workman, senior editor of The Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash., which claims over 600,000 members, said the individual nature of contributions to the various gun groups underscores the fact that gun groups have popular support. He notes that a large amount of funds for organizations like his come from individuals.

“This myth that’s been floated around for years that the gun rights movement is funded by all the gun manufacturers, I have to sit back and chuckle at that every once and a while,” Workman said. “If you look at the people who contribute at the grassroots levels, to the various gun organizations, they’re sending in $10, $25 checks, whatever they can afford…. The NRA for example reported the other day that their membership has surged by 250,000 [to 4.25 million] in the last 30 days, and that is a phenomenal amount of growth.”

Rather than leading to more funding for gun control, Workman suggests that Giffords’ new PAC might eventually succeed only in spreading the same funds to a larger number of organizations.

“This is an interesting situation, because on either side of the issue one presumes there’s a finite number of people who will consistently and repeatedly contribute to either a pro-gun or anti-gun organization,” Workman said. “This new movement by Gabby Giffords very well might end up as a competitor to some of the existing organizations when they go looking for money. Right away they’re going to get quite a bit of money for all those organizations because the gun prohibition community is looking at this as probably the best opportunity they’ve had in the last 20 years to push their agenda.”

Indeed, while there have been several deadly and tragic mass shootings over the years, including the one directed at Giffords herself, few have drawn the immediate and massive response that Newtown has received. The public outcry on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets have helped launch a serious discussion on the nature of gun violence in America and our attitudes towards mental health, with politicians like Obama and Biden calling for stricter restrictions on assault weapons and magazines.

In a nation of high murder rates, many guns, and a lot of violence balanced by a Constitution and a host of local laws that allow for closely held liberties and provide for gun ownership, the narrative on guns is being rewritten across the country, in towns big and small, on Facebook walls and in formal political debates. It is a narrative with real consequences for real people – Chicago topped the nation in homicides last year with 506 but is certainly not alone in feeling the effects of gun violence – but one that, like most things in Washington, is likely to be defined by money.