More than constitutional tricks killed moving an amendment to the Senate floor for debate – talking, the kind most Americans find boring. It was faulty thinking – Americans’ rotten idealism gone berserk. Money didn’t defeat Manchin-Toomey, but NRA-affiliated donations and dark money certainly helped.
Documents also show the NRA saw a surge in donations to its lobbying arm in the months following Newtown – registering a record $2.7m in cash during January and February. Further disclosures showing the scale of its recent donations, particularly to politicians in the House of Representatives, are expected on Saturday.
The Gun Owners of America and National Association for Gun Rights – two groups seen as more conservative than the NRA – have also been active in the Senate, giving $9,000 and $5,000 respectively to Ted Cruz, one of the leaders of Republican opposition to the amendment.
Others to receive arms-related donations recently include Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who received $1,000 on 4 March from BAE Systems, a British defence group that manufacturers ammunition, although mostly for military purposes.
Some of the more relevant donations do not come explicitly from gun campaigners. Senator Jeff Flake, a crucial swing voter from Arizona who turned against gun control at the last minute, received $5,000 in 2012 from The Madison Project, a right-wing campaign group that lists gun rights as one of its top priorities. On 9 April, it warned against Republicans such as Flake, who voted for the gun debate, and urged members to call these senators and “tell them that when the Bill of Rights reads ‘shall not be infringed’ with regards to the second amendment, it means exactly that”.
Though the sums are relatively small they indicate the range of lobbying targets pursued by groups such as the NRA, which spent $8.5m before the last election on television ads and telephone drives. Far more money is spent on negative attack ads against politicians seen as weak on gun rights, than in favour of supporters.
Analysis of so-called ‘dark money’, or undisclosed expenditure, by the Sunlight Foundation shows the NRA was behind at least five TV ad campaigns against gun control since Newtown, targeting key swing states such as Ohio.
The elegantly simple constitutional architecture of the Senate helped, too. Still, the 90% of American support for background checks should have overrode these obstacles. Maybe, the nationwide polls were faulty. No, data from 25 states, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Quinnipiac University, reveals a preponderance of support for background checks from constituents AND high ratings from the NRA.
Money can buy votes but it can’t buy an explanation for those votes. The senators voting “no” today have to believe that there is a way of talking about “gun rights” as though it isn’t an embarrassing anachronism, a misreading of the constitution as grievously damaging to the country as the similarly “strict constitutionalist” notion that brought us the “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 landmark supreme court decision upholding segregation.
If anything, thinking of the NRA – and the political power of gun rights activists as a whole – as the sole architect of the failure of the background check amendment gives us exactly the kind of convenient, one-dimensional “good guy v bad guy” framework that the NRA wants to superimpose on every decision about gun legislation. The fact is that if gun violence was a matter of keeping guns away from “bad guys”, we could probably have some success at it.
When gun rights advocates tell us that the real problem isn’t guns, but a culture of violence, they are half-right – or maybe, just have it backwards. The problem is guns in a culture of violence … or at least, in a culture that still believes that violence can be addressed with violence.
Since Newtown, I have re-examined my own feelings about guns and the second amendment. I grew up in Nebraska; my family is from Texas. I learned to shoot a rifle in grade school, and took target-shooting classes at summer camp. I don’t know a lot about guns beyond that – just enough to know how much fun, and how dangerous, they are.
As far as the second amendment is concerned, it’s hard to have any affinity for Texas and Texans without some belief in the idea that the federal government may at some point turn against you. I also read a lot of apocalyptic science fiction: I use the specter of the zombie plague as motivation when I don’t want to go to the gym. All that is to say, I am sympathetic to the notion that I may need to handle a gun some day. Just as I know I may also need to know how to distill my own urine for drinking water.
Scientific reasoning is no match for fear, and giving such anxious voters a tongue lashing will only harden hearts. That’s because the NRA offers such a disarmingly idyllic picture of American life.
Today, the misguided Manchin-Toomey-Schumer proposal failed in the U.S. Senate. This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution. As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools.
The NRA will continue to work with Republicans and Democrats who are committed to protecting our children in schools, prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law, and fixing our broken mental health system. We are grateful for the hard work and leadership of those Senators who chose to pursue meaningful solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems.
Good folk, safety, and the nutjobs – it’s a winning formula.
I’m with Gabby, though, who is leading the charge for the next victory.
On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms — a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.
Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no have also looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, 6 of whom died. These senators have heard from their constituents — who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.
I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.
Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done, and until we have changed our laws so we can look parents in the face and say: We are trying to keep your children safe. We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.
I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.
We need to move beyond the misguided confidence science provides, and assault the enemy that seeks to profit from our fear. It’s not your country, painted in soothing colors, but ours, where we have to deal with violence, like suicide, every day. The way to end violence is to reduce the means to commit it, not to encourage more. But lets not be naive: the world is full of evil people. The way to reduce violence is to fight those, like the leadership of the NRA, who make our lives more violent. So, let’s not just blame Congress. NRA members should take back their organization, so that this episode is not repeated every time good Americans in their Congress try to reform their country.