Citizens United and the NRA: To fix gun laws, we have to fix campaign finance laws first

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During the March for Our Lives on Saturday, students who had survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida, wore price tags reading $1.05.

"When you take 3,140,167 — the number of students enrolled in Florida schools — and divide by $3,303,355 — the amount of money Marco Rubio has received from the National Rifle Association, it comes out to a dollar and five cents," survivor Sarah Chadwick explained during her speech. "Is that all we're worth to these politicians? A dollar and five cents?"

The NRA has indeed spent more $3 million supporting Rubio since 2010, and nearly all of that has come from the kind of outside spending that was legalized by the courts through the Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNOW.org v. FEC cases of 2010. Five other Republican senators have received even more support than Rubio.

"Those two cases in combination gave rise to super PACs, entities that can take an unlimited amount of money from any source, so long as it’s not a foreign source," explained Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause.

The NRA offers one of the most prominent examples of how that this massive deregulation of campaign finance law has reshaped politics. Prior to these court decisions, the group had spent $10 million on the 2008 election. In 2016, that number had ballooned to $54 million, with more than $30 million spent on Donald Trump's campaign alone. Spaulding and his colleague Jesse Littlewood have published an in-depth report titled "Power Shift," exploring the way this explosion of dark money and outside spending has resulted in a Republican Party completely beholden to the interests of the gun lobby — even more than it was in the years prior to Citizens United. Spaulding and Littlewood provide a graph to illustrate the dramatic increase in NRA campaign spending from this deregulatory push.

"We all know that elected officials are responsive to any campaign spending in their race," Spaulding explained. "Just because the NRA isn’t writing a check directly to a candidate doesn’t mean they can’t buy influence, either by spending money in races or threatening to spend money in races."

"The result is a Congress full of Republicans who are sitting on their hands because they fear the NRA more than they care about protecting our children and our communities," wrote Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, in an email to Salon. "Unless the role of unlimited, undisclosed money in politics is reformed, the NRA will continue its stranglehold over Congress, and Republicans will continue to block common-sense gun safety reforms.”

While the NRA likes to hold itself out as a membership-driven rights group, it is better understood, as Spaulding put it, as "a trade association for gun manufacturers and corporations that manufacture weapons."

he NRA has been funded with "tens of millions of dollars from the firearms industry," Spaulding said, but it's difficult to know exactly how much money the gun industry funnels into political campaigns through the NRA. As the report lays out, most of the campaign spending goes through the the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which is not required to disclose its donors.

The NRA's connections to corporate interests don't stop with gun manufacturers and sellers. As the report lays out clearly, the NRA also works with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to lobby state legislators to pass laws such as the "stand your ground" bills, which became a national controversy after George Zimmerman pursued and shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed young man who had gone out to buy snacks at a convenience store. ALEC is basically a catch-all corporate lobbying firm passing itself off as a charity, and the NRA's involvement is another sign that the group is better understood as a corporate lobby than a rights organization.


The NRA has become incredibly protective of its ability to spend money lavishly on elections without disclosing where it's coming from. Since 2010, Democrats have introduced various versions of the DISCLOSE Act), which would make it much harder for groups like the NRA to hide their donor base. The NRA has lobbied against the bill and demanded exceptions for themselves, which is likely a large part of the reason why Republicans keep quashing it.

Exactly where the NRA's money is coming, and where it's going, has become an even more pressing question in recent months. A January article from McClatchy DC reported that the FBI is now investigating "whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency."

On Tuesday, NPR reported that the NRA "acknowledged that it accepts foreign donations but says it does not use them for election work," but that Senate Democrats remain skeptical of this explanation. Part of the problem, of course, is that the lack of disclosure laws makes it easy for the NRA to conceal the money trail and decline to clarify this issue. Furthermore, that lack of disclosure laws is largely because the NRA has fought against them every step of the way.

As the Common Cause report notes, the NRA has drastically increased its spending on lobbying alongside the drastic increase in campaign spending, going from $1.8 million in 2007 to $5.1 million in 2017.

Spaulding explained that lobbying and campaign spending go hand in hand, because campaign spending is "the power that those lobbyists bring when they come into these meetings on Capitol Hill that can really skew policy." Lobbyists may not even need to mention their ability to spend heavily in campaign season when they meet with politicians, he added. Members of Congress and other elected officials are quite aware of what could happen to them if they don't do what lobbyists want.

By putting price tags on themselves and drawing attention to the role of NRA campaign spending and lobbying, the Parkland survivors were making the point that unregulated campaign finance is likely the main reason that Republicans are so reluctant to pass even the most minor gun safety regulations. Every elected Republican is haunted by the prospect of the NRA funding a primary opponent who will fully support the industry's desire to reject all restrictions on gun sales, no matter the human cost.

If and when Democrats get back into power, activists who want to see gun safety reform need to go beyond basic changes like expanding background checks and limiting magazine size. Even more important, perhaps, are laws requiring groups like the NRA to disclose more information about their financial backers, so the public can see exactly whose money is corrupting the democratic system.

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