Washington Is Blue, the NRA Is Weak, But Gun Bills Still In Limbo

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Drew Angerer/Getty
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It took about five minutes before a gun hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee assumed a familiar cadence Tuesday morning.

Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) opened by expressing a quiet rage and dismay over how they could be talking about another mass shooting, with two taking place in the week after Durbin first announced the hearing on “Reducing Gun Violence.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) echoed Durbin’s concern about the loss of life, but he then quickly veered into addressing the violence over the summer sparked by racial unrest and the need to increase funding for law enforcement.

The partisans on either side of the dais then recycled their traditional speeches—Democrats accusing Republicans of doing nothing, Republicans accusing Democrats of using a tragedy to further an agenda that wouldn’t have saved the lives lost anyway

As the pandemic raged in the United States in 2020, mass shootings became less common while other forms of gun violence rose significantly. But two mass shootings in a week—one at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia, that left eight people dead, and another on Monday at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, that left 10 dead—brought the hearing back to a more common refrain.

While plenty has changed in Washington, new federal gun restrictions remain some of the toughest to enact. And despite calls from President Joe Biden on Tuesday to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as implement new background checks, the issue is unlikely to go anywhere.

For more than a decade, Democrats largely blamed that intransigence on the National Rifle Association, a Second Amendment rights organization with deep pockets and a long memory.

But the NRA is now hardly the empty shell of its former self. Over the last few years, the NRA has lost massive amounts of money amid internal corruption scandals and a barrage of lawsuits that have shaken the faith of even its most devout members.

In the 2020 election, the group spent a fraction of what it did in 2016, and in January, the embattled organization filed for bankruptcy. And yet, Tuesday’s debate tracked largely the same as hearings in the past.

“The NRA leadership is diminished, (in stature at least), but NRA is no longer the ‘only game in town’ nor is it the 800 lb gorilla of days gone bye,” Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and a former NRA lobbyist, told The Daily Beast in an email. “The internet has allowed dozens of state based gun rights groups to have as much (or even more) power in their own states than NRA ever did.”

While other groups have cropped up to help take the NRA’s place, it’s still unclear whether small national organizations and state-based operations can match the NRA’s financial influence.

In 2020, the NRA spent almost $10 million on direct political contributions; the next biggest spender was National Shooting Sports Foundation, at half a million, according to OpenSecrets data.

In 2016, the NRA spent $54.3 million to elect President Donald Trump and like-minded Republicans. Four years later, infighting, litigation and accusations of mismanagement and corruption crippled the organization. They spent just $25 million in 2020, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. The group’s lobbying and public affairs arm—the NRA Institute for Legislative Action—spent $580,000 on federal elections in 2020, about a third of the $1.6 million it paid out in 2016.

In 2019, the most recent year with available tax data, the NRA was $57 million in debt. Revenue generated from membership dues saw a 34 percent decrease from 2018, while costs associated with audits, taxes and legal fees rose by more than that amount. The organization paid its top lawyer $38.6 million in 2018 and 2019 alone, and leaked documents reveal that legal costs rose by 41 percent in 2019, after a nearly 400 percent increase in 2018. Three NRA board members who questioned the group’s unrestrained spending habits bailed in the summer of 2019.

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In January 2020, CEO Wayne LaPierre was secretly recorded telling board members that his organization had taken “about a $100 million hit” in the previous two years, and that he had to pull “about $80 million” from the budget in order for the group to “survive.” Months later, the group announced it had laid off and furloughed more than 200 employees. And last August, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit aiming to dissolve the NRA for allegedly violating state charity law “in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner,” looting tens of millions of dollars in donor funds for personal use—an operation allegedly led by CEO LaPierre himself.

Amy Hunter Wright, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said the group would continue its advocacy efforts and pushed back on reports about their financial state.

“We will work to educate lawmakers on the Second Amendment and help them to make the best decisions for Americans and for our members,” she said. “ The NRA is strong and in good financial shape.”

Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, noted that the NRA primarily serves to further the interests of the firearms industry as a whole.

“It’s important to note that the NRA is really just a corrupt spokesperson for the gun industry. It’s not about the owners, but about moving product and supporting that industry,” Skaggs told The Daily Beast.

Skaggs continued that whether the NRA gets replaced or its leaders get removed, there are other groups that could step in with the backing of the gun industry. “We’re in better shape than we’ve been for a very long time: The most powerful entity in the gun lobby is crumbling before our eyes as a result of its own corruption and mismanagement. Voters are done,” he said. “The question is how many of them will vote for politicians who carry water for the industry.”

To that end, Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, the co-director of the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program at the University of Washington, said "intense and relentless advocacy and outreach for certain measures" is the only real way the public support of these measures could be turned into action.

"The public feels a sense of hopelessness and helplessness every time these tragedies strike," he said. "Everyone knows that we must all collectively do better; the divergence of opinions is about the how of it."

For years, the NRA drew on its financial and political clout to induce politicians into blocking gun control reforms backed by widespread public support, such as expanded background checks, which 90 percent of Americans supported in the wake of Newtown. A Pew Research Center survey found that the number of Americans who favor tighter gun laws increased between 2017 and 2019, from 52 to 60 percent.

Robert Maguire, who investigates political nonprofits for transparency watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Daily Beast that the NRA didn’t just feed conservatives. “It also wielded a threat against people who crossed them: you won’t get that support, or might even get primaried,” Maguire said. “That appears to have been diminished. One of the legs of the stool is rotting.”

Shannon Watts, gun control advocate and founder of Moms Demand Action, said the country would be safer without the NRA’s influence.

“This is not your grandparents’ NRA. In just a few short years, it has gone from perhaps the most powerful political powerbroker in America to bankrupt and broken—a glorified piggy bank for its leadership—all while endangering millions of lives,” Watts said. “The NRA is losing money and power and soon we’re all going to be safer for it.”

President Biden, speaking at the White House, called on the Senate to act on a range of actions to save lives “in the future” but has yet to issue executive actions to change gun restrictions.

“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country. Once again, I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. There was a law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings,” he said. “We can close the loopholes in our background check system, including the Charleston loophole.”

The Charleston loophole refers to situations when an individual tries to buy a gun, but their background check doesn’t come back immediately. If the background check doesn’t come back within three days, the seller can proceed with the gun deal—exactly what happened in 2015 when Dylann Roof bought a gun and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

After Biden's remarks, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that the White House is “considering a range of levers, including working through legislation, including executive actions to address, obviously, you know, not just gun safety measures but violence in communities."

These shootings have happened before, and lawmakers haven’t been able to significantly address gun violence.

After 20 children and seven adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) joined forces to offer a slate of gun laws, including universal background checks. But despite all the outrage and public support, the gun lobby won and Manchin-Toomey never went anywhere.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether it was time to revive those enhanced background checks, Toomey expressed skepticism that any push would really go anywhere.

"I still support background checks on commercial sales and, you know, we’re having preliminary conversations,” Toomey said.. “I hope we can get something across the goal line. But, you know, it’s very difficult."

Additional reporting from Sam Brodey

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