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Is the NRA a Paper Tiger?

David Callahan

The Center for Responsive Politics compiles data on the 50 top interest groups giving money to Congress. Near the top of the 2012 list are the usual suspects—finance, insurance, real estate, and Big Oil. Near the bottom are casinos and the building materials industry (along with "Women's Issues.")

But guess who's not on the list? Gun rights groups. Not only did such groups not make the list in 2012; they have never made the list. Even if you only look at the 50 interest groups supporting Republicans, the gun rights crowd doesn't make the cut. 

However, the NRA does make the Center's list of "Heavy Hitters" which tracks the top all-time donors to politics. But it is number 50 on that list—not far below the American Dental Association. Any number of unions, including the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, rank higher than the NRA on the Heavy Hitters list

Most of the NRA's clout is wielded in the form of outside spending, and it spent over $18 million in this last election cycle—putting it 17 on the list of outside spenders for 2012. Like the Club for Growth, another group that enforces ideological purity, the NRA is a feared player at election time. But Daniel Gross of the Brady Campaign has argued that the NRA's bark is far bigger than its bite and that its 2012 war chest produced few gains:

In all, less than 1 percent (actually 0.81 percent) of the (inaptly-named) NRA Political Victory Fund's political spending was spent in support of winning candidates. The NRA spent more than $100,000 in each of seven Senate races; its candidate lost in six of those seven. Not many House incumbents lost -- 26 as of last Tuesday -- but more than two-thirds of losing candidates (18 in all) had the NRA's support.

2012 is hardly the first election to prove that the NRA is not the political force it pretends to be. Paul Waldman analyzed NRA influence in federal elections from 2004-2010 and found that "NRA contributions to candidates have virtually no impact on the outcome of Congressional races." Waldman also disproved the widely-repeated claims that the NRA was key to the GOP's takeover of the House in 1994, and to the 2000 presidential race. When one looks at the facts, it is clear that both races turned on partisan politics, not guns.

As a lobbying force on Capital Hill, the NRA is very small. For example, organized labor spent ten times more in 2012 lobbying Congress than gun rights groups. 

So why does the NRA wield such clout? One answer is that politicians have an exaggerated and dated fear of its electoral power. But another answer, unfortunately, is that public support for gun control tends to be quite soft and, in many places like the South and West, quite scarce. And, in fact, before the Connecticut shooting, some polls showed the public less enthusiastic about stricter gun laws than it was a decade ago. Even after the Aurora shooting and the shooting in Arizona, among others, just a bare majority of Americans surveyed this summer said they favored stricter gun laws. 

These findings are not surprising given that surveys also show that over 40 percent of Americans have a gun in their home. 

So the NRA's power does make sense: Many Americans own guns and some subset of these people are fanatically committed to retaining their guns. As Sam Stein and Paul Blumenthal write, "The group's great clout lies in the sheer number of people it can mobilize. The NRA boasts four million members, whom it spends a large piece of its budget engaging."

In contrast, the broad public is lukewarm about gun control and this doesn't tend to be a priority issue even to gun control advocates, which is why gun control groups generally are very small and raise little money to pump into the political process.

This is a classic case of democracy in action: Obsessed minorities routinely get their way, be they dairy farmers or gun owners. 

But here's the good news: Public opinion is not static, with polls showing more support for gun control in the last week. And, anyway, the public has always solidly favored an assault rifle ban and other steps to rein in the most deadly armaments. As Daniel Gross pointed out: "the vast majorities of NRA members and other gun owners support the common sense gun laws that the NRA vehemently opposes." Those fearsome 4 million members shouldn't be so fearsome if they don't agree with the NRA's national leadership. 

The NRA may be in step with the public on the broad right to own guns. But it's way out of step on what kinds of guns or what steps are required to obtain guns. And given the NRA's poor recent track record in influencing elections it's hard to imagine it will have much success in punishing lawmakers who support new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting. 

The NRA is a paper tiger and the time is finally right to call its bluff.