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It’s Not Just the Money: How the NRA Actually Stymies Gun Control

It’s Not Just the Money: How the NRA Actually Stymies Gun Control: Gerardo Mora / Getty

Gerardo Mora / Getty

Mass shootings happen so regularly that the response to them has started to take on a futile, ritualized feel. Anti-gun forces call for reform. Pro-gun forces insist the shootings shouldn’t be politicized. Politicians offer prayers. And on Twitter, Igor Volsky from the Center for American Progress posts how much money the NRA contributed to each of the praying politicians.

Following the mass shooting in San Bernardino in September, Volsky tweeted:

And after the Orlando shooting Volsky again pointed out NRA contributions:

Volsky’s implication is clear. The NRA gives money to politicians, and those politicians follow the NRA line. The effort to pass gun control legislation is undermined by money in politics. The NRA is corrupting the political process.

But do political contributions really work this way? Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, whom Volsky singled out, received $2,000 from the NRA. Is $2,000 enough to buy influence? Evaluating the precise influence of money in politics is notoriously difficult, but most political scientists who have attempted to study the issue find little correlation between contributions and roll call votes.

“Legislators’ votes depend almost entirely on their own beliefs and the preferences of their voters and their party. Contributions explain a miniscule fraction of the variation in voting behavior in the U.S. Congress,” Stephen Ansolabehere, John M. de Figueiredo and James M. Snyder Jr., concluded in a 2003 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

The provocative title of that paper is “Why Is There So Little Money in U.S. Politics?” The authors point out that shifting votes in Congress can result in windfalls of hundreds of billions of dollars. Given the huge stakes, you would think that there would be an incentive for contributors to spend, spend, spend.

Yet, in 2012, the expenditure on the election was about $7 billion—a large sum, but still quite small compared to the vast, almost unimaginable amount of money at stake. The authors conclude that most interest groups and businesses do not see political contributions as an investment in public policy. Or, to put it another way, political contributors do not believe that their contributions have a direct effect on switching votes.

But what about indirect effects? Eleanor Powell, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, says that the direct contributions Volsky highlights probably have little effect in swaying votes. However, she pointed out that the NRA doesn’t just make direct contributions.

“The bigger way that they have influence is contributions and independent expenditures they make on behalf of the candidate or their opponent,” she told me. Much of this is in the form of independent advertising touting the pro-gun virtues of the chosen candidate. To that is added “the mobilization of their own members.” NRA ratings can have a strong effect on voters, Powell says. If true, this means NRA endorsements may be worth significantly more to politicians than direct donations.

Rep. Gary Palmer, via palmer.house.gov

Rep. Gary Palmer, via palmer.house.gov

Even here, though, some researchers have expressed skepticism. Paul Waldman at the American Prospect looked at results from elections in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 and concluded that “The NRA has virtually no impact on Congressional elections.” This is in part, he said, because the vast majority of NRA endorsements go to Republicans in safe conservative seats. The NRA also spreads its money widely, which means that each individual contribution is not that great. Waldman found that chosen members of Congress received around $2,500, barely a drop in the television advertising bucket for the $1 million generally spent on a competitive House contest.

As it turns out, Alabama representative Gary Palmer, singled out by Volsky, is a fairly typical recipient. He received a little less than the average (only $2,000 instead of $2,500), and he’s in a very safe seat. Palmer won in 2014 with 76 percent of the vote. His GOP predecessor, Spencer Bachus III, won with 71 percent of the vote in 2012. The seat has been solidly Republican since Bachus won it in 1993, more than 20 years ago. Palmer’s constituents like him, and they like the Republican party. Palmer isn’t voting pro-gun because he got a small contribution from the NRA. The NRA gave him a token contribution to signal that it approves of his (and his constituents’) position on guns.

So if the NRA isn’t straight-up buying votes, and if, as polls show, large majorities of Americans support legislation such as expanded background checks, then why is it so difficult to pass gun control legislation?

Part of the reason is that politicians are a notoriously superstitious, cowardly lot. Incumbents are hardly ever defeated for reelection. But despite the minimal danger, a handful of successful primary challenges by the Tea Party has effectively paralyzed Republicans terrified of losing their seats if they show any sign of compromising with President Obama.

Removing money from Congress isn’t likely to end the power of the NRA. Removing Republicans would.

Perhaps more important than fear may be identity. The Republican Party has made gun rights one of its central partisan litmus tests for decades. At this point, to be Republican is to be pro-NRA—and, increasingly, to be a Democrat is to be anti-NRA. Even in Obama’s first term, the NRA supported a number of Democratic candidates. This cycle it has given money to only one.

Removing money from Congress isn’t likely to end the power of the NRA. Removing Republicans from Congress would. Electing a Democrat to the White House in 2016 would tip the balance of the Supreme Court, which restricted local gun control efforts in 2008 with the Heller case.

Beyond that, Democrats should consider pushing for statehood for the District of Columbia. Heller overturned very strong D.C. gun control legislation, which retains narrow support in the District. D.C. residents have been at the center of the national gun control debate and deserve the right to be represented in Congress on this issue, as well as every other. And two senators from D.C. would almost surely be two more votes for policies such as expanded background checks—no matter how much (or how little) the NRA pays senators who already agree with them.


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