So, I listened this weekend to some of the speeches in the “March for Our Lives” protest against guns, and heard a lot of criticism of the National Rifle Association for buying votes through its enormous campaign contributions. Then I saw this article published on the CNN website that purports to explain why the NRA holds so much sway in Congress. States CNN:
While large industries such as defense, health care and finance give more to federal candidates, so-called “single-issue” groups have always been a bit different. For them, it’s not necessarily as much about outspending and outflanking other industry powers as it is how they compare with the other side — those advocating the opposite position.
By that measure, the NRA and its allies aren’t just winning, they’ve been dominating for years.
In the 2018 election cycle so far, gun rights groups, including the NRA, have outspent the competition more than 40 to 1.
Gun rights groups have made nearly $600,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures on behalf of congressional candidates, the data shows. Gun control groups? Barely $14,000.
I don’t have a (hunting) dog in this fight. I don’t own a handgun; indeed, I have never shot a gun but once in my life. I don’t have a problem with enacting measures to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals, crazy people and wife beaters. On the other hand, if I felt the need to defend myself, I’d want to make sure that my right to purchase a Dirty Harry-worthy .44 Magnum wasn’t infringed in any way. Call me a middle-of-the-roader on this issue.
So, when I heard the refrain that the “gun lobby” spreads around far more money than gun control advocates do, I had no reason not to believe it. What else would explain their political power?
Then I came across this article published by Radio IQ. Virginia public radio is hardly part of the NRA fan club. But, drawing upon data from the Virginia Public Access Project, Radio IQ drew a radically different conclusion regarding money in Virginia politics.
During last year’s state election, gun rights groups and firearms dealers gave more than $160,000 in campaign contributions. That’s according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project. It’s a good chunk of change, and it was directed largely at members of the General Assembly who sit on committees that routinely stop gun control legislation. But groups that advocate for gun control donated more than $2.4 million, mostly to statewide candidates.
“One of the myths of politics is the idea that NRA money is decisive,” according to Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington. He says the real power of the NRA is not the campaign contributions. It’s the activists who show up at rallies and contact lawmakers and are, essentially, single-issue voters.
(Last year wasn’t a fluke, by the way. VPAP records show that gun control advocates have outspent gun rights advocates in Virginia political races since 1996-97 by $8.1 million to $1.3 million.)
Quoting national statistics, CNN says the NRA outspends opponents 40 to 1. Quoting state statistics, Radio IQ says opponents outspend the NRA by 15 to 1. That’s quite a discrepancy.
I consulted the OpenSecrets.org database to see if I could explain the diametrically opposed results. For the 2017-2018 election cycle, OpenSecrets says that gun rights groups contributed $808,000 to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups, while gun control groups contributed a mere $152,000. That’s a spending gap, but closer to 5 to 1 than 40 to 1.
Delving a bit deeper, we see that the Giffords PAC, named after shooting victim Congressman Gabbie Giffords, was the only major contributor listed for the gun control groups. It turns out that the big gun-control groups — Everytown for Gun Safety, the Giffords PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — contributed heavily to Virginia state races — primarily Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. I would conjecture that the same groups have spent heavily in other state groups as part of a strategy of influencing state elections rather than federal elections.
In other words, CNN told only part of the story. Its article focused on federal elections exclusively, ignoring the vast sums poured into Virginia and possibly other state elections. I don’t know if CNN was consciously manipulating the truth, or if it was just incredibly sloppy. But I do know this: Far from being “the most trusted name in news,” CNN is rapidly establishing itself as the least trusted name in news.