Meet Washington's Other Gun Lobby

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 4 2013 10:56 AM

Meet Washington's Other Gun Lobby. It Loves Guns Even More than the NRA.

This photo illustration shows a Remington 20-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a Colt .45 semi-auto handgun, a Walther PK380 semi-auto handgun and various ammunition clips with a copy of the US Constitution on top of the American flag

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of Newtown and during the debate over gun control and safety that has since ensued, most of the pro-gun attention has been on the National Rifle Association, the largest, best-known and best-funded gun lobby in the country. But the New York Times introduces a second pro-gun player this morning, one that is doing its fair share of behind-the-scenes work to derail any and all efforts to strengthen existing gun laws: Gun Owners of America.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

According to an an endorsement attributed to Ron Paul that's splashed across the top of the group's website, it's the "only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington." Given the NRA's answers to Newtown, that's quite a bold claim; from the way the Times tells it, it just may be true:

Many lawmakers and gun safety advocates believe Gun Owners of America’s rising profile and heavy membership drive has led the N.R.A. to take a more aggressive stance against measures it once supported, like an expansion of background checks to include private gun sales. (In 1999, Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the N.R.A., said there should be “no loopholes anywhere, for anyone” on gun sale background checks.) Part of the group’s mission, [executive director Larry] Pratt said, is to stay on top of the N.R.A. "when we don’t think they’ve gone far enough." ...
Gun Owners of America’s central mission now is to prevent the passage of several bills about to hit the Senate floor. It is also lobbying for a House bill that would eliminate gun-free school zones. ... [The] group’s positions tend to veer farther right than those of the N.R.A. Instead of expanding background checks, [Pratt] would like to unravel the existing ones on gun purchases, fearing they will lead to a national gun registry. “We have opposed them from the beginning,” he said, “because there will be mission creep.”

Given the NRA's size, it's not a total surprise that a smaller interest group would able to stake out territory to its right. But it's noteworthy for the impact that's having. When Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, backed away from bipartisan talks to expand background checks earlier this year, he did so after Gun Owners of America and its members flooded the senator's office with e-mails and phone calls to make it, in the words of the paper, "exceedingly clear to the senator that an enhanced background check law would not be tolerated."

Democratic staffers likewise tell the paper that other Republicans they've approached to co-sponsor a background check bill were quick to point to the GOA as the most obvious reason not to. While the group's bank account is relatively paltry when compared to the NRA's (nearly $2 million in total revenue in 2011 compared to almost $220 million), its members often get Tea Party loud, inundating lawmakers' offices with calls and backing only the most conservative of candidates in GOP primaries back home. While the GOA obviously doesn't have the power of the deep-pocketed NRA, it clearly has power.

When it comes to the voting records of lawmakers, the GOA is also a tougher grader than the NRA. While the better-known organization awards A-ratings to Democratic senators like Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia (A+ in Baucus' case), the upstart group factors in non-gun legislation (like Obamacare) to hand those senators a D- and F, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, the GOA gives top marks (an A+) to only five lawmakers, half as many as the NRA does. [The Washington Post has the nice, simple breakdown of the head-to-head ratings here.] According to the Center of Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions, the GOA hasn't donated a penny directly to a Democratic lawmaker since 2000. In contrast, the NRA wrote checks to 26 Democrats in the House and one in the Senate—Joe Manchin—in the last election cycle alone.

Obviously it's difficult to quantify exactly how much influence each group wields in Washington, but if nothing else the NYT story is a reminder that as much as the NRA is often portrayed as the exclusive mouthpiece of the pro-gun crowd (a group that includes both gun owners and gun makers, among others), it's not the only one working to defeat any substantive gun control legislation.

***Read more on Slate about gun control, and follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***


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