One Big Reason the Latest Gun Bills Failed

Gun-rights groups have in recent years given much more money to sympathetic politicians than gun-control advocates have

In the year after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, gun-rights groups more than doubled spending on lobbying efforts.

After filibustering for 15 hours last week, Senate Democrats finally got what they wanted Monday evening: a vote on measures designed to curb gun violence in America. And, as anticipated, the Republican-controlled Senate voted down all four pieces of legislation imposing limits on gun sales.

Americans have come to expect exactly this sort of legislative stalemate in the aftermath of high-profile shootings. Real change on guns remains elusive for a host of reasons, both cultural and political — but arguably one of the biggest is that gun-rights advocates have in recent years, especially after mass shootings, poured much more money into the campaign coffers of politicians who are aligned with their agenda than gun-control advocates have.

Each of the measures voted on Monday was proposed as an amendment to a larger spending bill for the Commerce and Justice departments. Two were suggested by Democrats: Chris Murphy of Connecticut put forth a provision that would have expanded background checks for all gun sales, and Dianne Feinstein of California proposed one that would prevent anyone who had been on the federal terror watch list in the past five years from purchasing a firearm. The two others were backed by Republicans: John Cornyn of Texas floated a proposal that would have notified the government if anyone on the terror watch list attempted to purchase a gun — but the onus would be on the government to argue in court why that person shouldn't be allowed to have a firearm — while a measure proposed by Chuck Grassley of Iowa would have expanded funding for the federal background check system. (Critics argued Grassley's measure would actually relax current restrictions on mentally ill individuals' access to guns.)

Votes on all four amendments fell down party lines, with a handful of exceptions. For instance, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted against both Democratic proposals, while Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana voted for both Republican proposals. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted against Murphy's background check amendment and for Cornyn's. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois voted for both Democratic amendments, and against both Republican ones.

A factor that may offer some insight into why those senators voted the way they did is their relationship with the gun lobby — and one indicator of that is political donations: Heitkamp and Donnelly each received $2,000 from gun-rights groups this cycle, while Manchin got $1,000. (Donnelly, for what it's worth, voted in favor of all four measures on Monday.) Kirk has not accepted any money from the NRA since he was elected to his seat in 2010, making him an outlier among Senate Republicans. (New Mexico's Martin Heinrich is an exception to this rule. Heinrich, the only Democrat besides Heitkamp, Donnelly and Manchin to receive money from gun-rights groups — not to mention the most money of all of them, $2,250 this cycle — voted in favor of both Murphy and Feinstein's amendments.)

Their decisions hew to a pattern that can be observed as far back as the early Nineties. In 1992, two years before the federal assault-weapons ban went into effect, gun-rights groups were still in the habit of spreading their money around to members of both major parties; that year, 36 percent of their money went to Democrats and 64 percent to Republicans.

Today, 98 percent goes to Republicans, and just two percent has gone to Democrats.

The proportion of money the gun lobby donates to each party has oscillated slightly in the two-and-a-half decades since, often shifting after particularly horrific mass shootings; for instance, more Republicans got donations in the three cycles following the 1999 Columbine massacre.

But the most dramatic shift in the gun lobby's spending happened in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, during which 26 people, including 20 young children, were gunned down — a fact that has helped give way to a common feeling of hopelessness since that tragedy.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, groups advocating for the expansion of gun rights more than doubled spending on lobbying efforts, from $6.1 million in 2012 to $15.3 million in 2013. That money was used to combat a slate of legislative goals proposed by Obama in the wake of the shooting. He suggested, among other things, imposing criminal background checks on all gun sales, reinstating the assault weapons ban, imposing 10-round limits on magazines, banning armor-piercing bullets and improving mental health services in schools. None of the recommendations made it into law, despite popular support for the measures (including from Donald Trump).

Gun-control groups tried to match the gun-rights lobby's efforts — they spent more money on lobbying efforts in 2013 than in the previous eight years combined — but that amounted to just $2.2 million.

Though far from the only factor, the major discrepancies in spending between the two camps sheds some light on why no gun-control bills have passed Congress since January 2011 (when former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot) — despite the fact that more than 100 such bills have been introduced in the five years since.

Despite the considerable odds stacked against her, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins (who has not accepted any money from the gun lobby this cycle) hopes a law she's getting ready to propose — a compromise version of the competing terror watch list amendments that failed Monday night — still has a chance. Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both of whom joined Collins in voting against Cornyn's bill, are working with her on the legislation. Democrats Heitkamp, Donnelly and Manchin have expressed support for the measure.

As she told reporters Monday, "How about we focus on a result instead of playing politics with this?"

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