Voters, not lobbyists, shape the GOP gun agenda

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Representative Steve Scalise. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

In 2020, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was the top recipient of money from members of the “gun rights” industry. According to Open Secrets, his campaign received a total of $142,653 for the 2019-20 cycle. This puts the so-called gun lobby in 33rd place on the list, far behind other sectors like real estate and accounting. Medical professionals alone gave Scalise about seven times more money ($1,072,904) than the gun lobby. Meanwhile, individuals who simply put “retired,” instead of any industry, gave 100 times as much, or just under $14 million.

Scalise’s corporate and PAC-connected donors tell a similar story. You won’t find the NRA, Smith & Wesson, or anyone else from the “gun lobby” among the major corporate or PAC contributors.

And yet, Scalise often touts his A+ rating from the NRA. For some opponents of gun rights, this is shocking since Scalise was seriously injured in 2017 by a mass shooter. The brush with death, Scalise would say a few months later (following another mass shooting), only “strengthened” his support for gun rights.

Say what you will about Scalise’s opinions on guns, they weren’t “bought and paid for” by the gun lobby. The same goes for the Republican Party in general. In 2020, the NRA gave less than $1 million directly to candidates, which ranks it 996th on the list of top donors. He spent $5.4 million on lobbying, making him the 169th most lavish lobbyist. Like Stephen Gutowski, founder of Reloadinga site focused on gun issues and politics, wrote in Atlanticsince 2012, “the NRA’s highest contribution ranking has been 294th, and its highest lobbying ranking has been 85th.”

And yet, this claim that politicians like Scalise, and the GOP in general, are “property” of the gun lobby is an article of faith for many. When some Republicans made the questionable choice to speak at the NRA convention in Texas, just days after the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, the New York Times said, “There is no better manifestation of the gun lobby’s total capture of so much of the GOP.”

This pushes back the political reality: the “gun lobby” is the tail, not the dog. Indeed, the NRA is a hot mess, and has probably never been weaker. He even tried to declare bankruptcy. Whatever you think of its policies, the GOP is not being captured by puppeteers who have its “balls in a money clip,” as Jimmy Kimmel’s colorful phrase. Republicans follow the will of their constituents, or at least voters who show up and vote reliably on gun issues, especially in primaries.

Indeed, there is something cowardly, lazy and undemocratic about blaming everything on the gun lobby. Politicians and activists tend to fight with the opponents they want, rather than the ones they have. By demonizing a few irresponsible villains pulling the strings behind the curtains, advocates for tougher gun laws don’t have to face the reality that millions of Americans simply don’t agree with them. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that about half of Americans don’t think tougher gun ownership laws will lead to fewer mass shootings.

Compare how the media talk about abortion rights and gun rights. Planned Parenthood and similar groups give Democrats at least as much, but the only people who consistently use the phrase “abortion lobby” are abortion-rights haters. Supporters and the press present their position as a sincere belief that reflects the views of Democratic voters or even women in general.

To the extent that groups like the NRA and Planned Parenthood influence politics, it is by informing, galvanizing and representing voters, not by bribing politicians.

Some blame the “undemocratic” structure of the Senate because less populated, more rural red states are overrepresented and support for guns — and gun ownership — is higher. Even if you buy it entirely, the Senate is not the source of the stalemate; voters are. Democrats need swing state voters, and those voters are resisting New York-style gun control. Also, if your strategy for passing sweeping new legislation requires getting rid of the Senate, then you have no strategy.

All of that may change because of the horror at Uvalde, and I certainly hope lawmakers find workable reforms, even if comprehensive solutions are unlikely. But if Uvalde breaks the deadlock, it won’t be because the gun lobby has loosened its grip. It will be because voters have changed their minds.

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