Politics & Government

The no-compromise group that thinks the NRA is weak on guns

WASHINGTON -- John Morse still burns when he remembers how gun-rights groups chased him from political office for helping to pass firearms restrictions after 12 people were shot to death in a movie theater near Denver.

The 2013 recall campaign against Morse, the Colorado Senate president, and a colleague, made them the state's first lawmakers removed from office by voters. It also boosted the fortunes of one of the groups that led the fight against him, the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which has since taken its activism nationwide as the National Association for Gun Rights.

They "have my head on the wall to show around the country to ensure that Democrats all have their heads buried very firmly in 6 inches of sand," Morse said.

The Gun Rights association says it aggressively fights "gun grabbers" in state capitals and Washington. The group has raised millions of dollars in part by depicting the better-known National Rifle Association as too "inside the Beltway" and "more interested in having access to politicians and 'getting something done.' "

"We believe in absolutely 100 percent no compromise," the association says on its website.

A spokeswoman for the NRA, Jennifer Baker, director of public affairs for its Institute for Legislative Action, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Lucius O'Dell, the Gun Rights association's senior vice president, said in an email that it has 4.5 million members and supporters and has "pressured state legislatures to defeat countless pieces of anti-gun legislation."

Though there are critics who question whether it overstates its impact, it has found an audience. It listed $12.5 million in grants and contributions in 2014, according to its most recently available tax filings. It reported spending the same amount that year to "educate gun owners and gun-rights supporters."

Those figures are dwarfed by other spending in the guns debate. The NRA spent $290.6 million in the previous year, according to the most recent tax filing available.

On the other side of the issue, the Everytown for Gun Safety organization -- formed partly from a group that supported Morse and his package of background checks and magazine capacity limits -- spent $37.4 million in 2014.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is chairman of Everytown and the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

The National Association of Gun Rights reports outspending the NRA in Washington. In disclosure filings with the U.S. Senate, the Gun Rights association reported spending a total of $11.5 million on lobbying from 2013 to 2015. That compares with $10 million reported by the NRA and its political arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, in that period.

The NRA has a six-story headquarters assessed at $42 million in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. The Gun Rights association lists its mailing address as a post office box in Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles south of Washington, and its headquarters in Windsor, Colo., in a two-story building with angle-in parking at curbside.

In quarterly lobbying disclosure filings, the National Association for Gun Rights said it had two lobbyists, compared with the NRA's dozen or more. It states its role plainly: run what it calls an "aggressive program" to mobilize opposition to firearms restrictions.

Its website solicits donations and has offered giveaways for events such as a helicopter-borne hunt for feral hogs, and a chance at a semiautomatic Barrett M82A1 (a rifle described by its manufacturer as offering "accurate firepower that never slows down").

The group specializes in appealing to "the low-information side of the pro-gun population," said Dave Kopel, research director for the Denver-based Independence Institute, a policy group that supports limited government and has accepted funding from the NRA.

O'Dell deflects such criticism.

"Our effectiveness in mobilizing our members and supporters to push for expanded protections for the Second Amendment is sure to be a sore subject with the political class in Washington, D.C., and state capitols across the country," O'Dell said.

In 2013 and 2014 it placed 1,193 ads on television stations in eight states, spending an estimated $249,820, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks TV ads.

"Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor says Republicans should support Obama's gun control," intoned the narrator of one ad that ran in March 2013 on news programs and other shows in Cantor's district in the Richmond, Va., area. "Cantor wants to herd even more gun owners into a federal registration system."

The following year Dave Brat, a college professor, upset the minority leader in the Republican primary election.

The Gun Rights association claimed a role in Brat's victory, saying in a Facebook posting that its "members and supporters in Virginia have sent a loud message that voting for gun control in Congress is not acceptable."

The Gun Rights association's political action committee donated $5,000 to Brat's campaign, compared with $1,000 by the NRA's committee. The NRA contributed $9,900 to Cantor's campaign. The Gun Rights group didn't contribute to him.

The group's impact on that race is in dispute.

"They had nothing to do with Eric's loss," said Linwood Cobb, who was ousted as Republican Party chairman in Cantor's 7th District by the same forces that ejected the lawmaker. "The only place I've ever seen them is on Facebook."

Brat said he doesn't recall their help. In an interview the lawmaker said the gun rights issue evokes so much passion because people feel they aren't being listened to by political leaders, fear for their safety, and believe one of their fundamental rights is in danger of being taken away.

"People are just boiling over right now," Brat said. "It's a fundamental right to be able to defend yourself and bear arms."

Cantor through a spokesman declined to comment.

During last fall's Virginia state legislative election campaigns, Brown's group went after Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican endorsed by the NRA and criticized by Democrats for using his post as chairman of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee to kill gun-safety legislation. Brown's group said Lingamfelter voted against measures promoting concealed carrying of weapons. Its online posting showed a woman cowering before a knife-wielding attacker and carried the message, "Lingamfelter wants to leave you defenseless!"

"It confused us," said Sara Townsend, the Democrat who lost to Lingamfelter in the race for a northern Virginia seat. "I can't think of anything that would make him a target."

Lingamfelter asked "Does Truth Matter in the Gun Issue?" in an election eve online posting that didn't mention Brown's group by name. Lingamfelter said "one gun group" that's worked against conservatives had the "laughable" position that he doesn't support gun rights. He touted an A-plus rating from the NRA. The delegate didn't return telephone calls and emails.

The Gun Rights association is a nonprofit that doesn't need to disclose donors, and lobbying records need to show little more than which topics were of concern, said Jenn Topper, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks political contributions.

Dudley Brown, president of the Gun Rights association, was paid $122,035 in 2014, according to the group's tax filing.

Asked for details about lobbying expenditures, O'Dell said "We use many media -- from post cards to phone calls to email and Facebook -- to mobilize our membership to lobby elected officials."

The group's activists and supporters recently helped to pass a bill allowing people to carry hidden guns without permits in West Virginia, O'Dell said.

The gun-rights groups, including the NRA and the National Association for Gun Rights, have lawmakers' attention because they can mobilize voters.

"We get contacts from people on both sides of the issue that one might say are a little bit orchestrated," said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who has supported some gun control measures. "The advocates for gun rights are strong because they have a lot of members."

Surveys show most people including a majority of NRA members are in favor of some measures such as expanded background checks for gun purchases, yet Congress doesn't move, said Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat and chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force that pushes for bans on assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

Most Americans favor expanded background checks for firearm sales, according to a Pew Research Center report last August, before mass shootings including December's slaying of 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

"The interest groups are very strong," Thompson said. "The interest groups work this thing. They score it, they try to prevent it from happening."

The National Association for Gun Rights reflects a strain of anti-establishment sentiment among gun-rights advocates.

"There is a certain feeling in the gun community that the NRA is too much a part of the Washington establishment, too cozy with other establishment elements -- the Republican Party, other interest groups," said Robert Spitzer, a State University of New York at Cortland political scientist who studies gun politics, said of the association.

Gun Rights association president Brown is a force in Colorado politics, mainly in primaries where he attacks Republicans deemed not sufficiently pro-gun and sometimes helps send further-right candidates to general elections where they lose, said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

"If there's a gun debate going, Dudley will rally the troops and the place will be packed," Straayer said. "He's had an impact on the primaries. The mainline Republicans do not like Dudley."

Its clout outside of Colorado is questioned by some.

"In terms of their overarching political impact, it's at best at the margin," said Spitzer, the SUNY Cortland political scientist. "They exist partly as a reflection of an underlying base in America that is virulently pro-gun rights, and that is suspicious of the NRA."