The national News21 Initiative brings together a select group of student journalists to produce a major national investigation into a topic of wide interest. This year, News21 has documented the struggle over gun rights and regulations in America. Under the direction of some of the nations best professional investigative journalists, 29 students from 16 universities have traveled the country to produce text, videos and interactive graphics to tell the story “Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America.” Over the next two weeks we will be featuring much of their reporting. You can view the entire project at the News21 website.
Twenty months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, some would say little has changed when it comes to guns in America.
Others would say everything has.
Flurries of gun-related legislation and renewed national attention on the topic have not been enough to change federal gun laws. The National Rifle Association, still the most powerful entity in the war over guns in America, no longer has a monopoly on the debate.
A resurgence of the gun control movement is challenging the status quo, while groups to the right of the NRA are also growing. Nonprofit organizations on each side are battling like they haven’t in years, all trying to shape the country’s politics and win over the American people.
But in spite of the evolving landscape, no progress in either direction is certain.
The gun control movement was nearly $285 million behind the gun rights movement in 2012 revenue raised, before Sandy Hook. Today, it is playing catch-up to the money, membership and political savvy of its opponents as the NRA works to maintain its dominance.
With new groups, a revamped strategy, more money and unprecedented collaboration, the gun control movement has made headway. Organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, the group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say they are moving the needle.
The NRA is strong financially. Its budget has consistently hovered well above $200 million in revenue in recent years and it has cultivated a highly organized grassroots base for more than a century.
As the gun control movement organized in the wake of Sandy Hook, the gun rights movement’s membership boomed. Groups more conservative than the NRA, like the National Association for Gun Rights, are growing. State legislatures across the country passed laws expanding gun rights. The NRA has focused on broadening its appeal.
With its near-mythical presence as a political lobby, the NRA is still the best-positioned player in the debate by far, bringing in and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its broad range of programs. Though its grip on Congress has loosened somewhat, it still isn’t letting major federal legislation through or relinquishing its influence on state politics.
The NRA began as a firearms education organization and sportsmen’s club in 1871 and didn’t become involved in politics until the 1970s. When it did, however, it had a built-in base of support. It has worked to build strong ties with members of Congress to back its lobbying and political efforts. Today, the NRA says it has 5 million members.
Around the same time the NRA entered politics, the group that would eventually become the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was founded. It attained a high profile following the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, in which Reagan press secretary James Brady was shot and partially paralyzed.
Its advocacy work in the ‘80s and ‘90s culminated in the passage of the Brady Act -- which mandated federal background checks on people buying firearms -- and the now-expired assault-weapons ban, both signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
In 1999, the Columbine High School shooting led to a resurgence of gun control advocacy. Like today’s movement, it had a billionaire benefactor in Monster.com’s Andrew J. McKelvey and a mother-led group, the Million Mom March. After a handful of state legislative victories, the movement fizzled.
This was the landscape when a spate of recent prominent mass shootings began: Virginia Tech in 2007; Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, in which then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot; the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting in 2012; and then, Newtown.
The Sandy Hook shooting touched off for the gun control side what Everytown Director of Strategy and Partnerships Brina Milikowsky called a “once-in-a-generation moment of great transformation.”
“Twenty years ago, Brady was the only game in town. And now there’s unprecedented resources and attention being focused on this issue, so we’re not a voice alone in the wilderness anymore,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign.
In fact, there is a profusion of gun control groups, including many on the state level.
Much of the NRA’s power is found in its passionate and faithful membership base.
“Their members are very highly trained in grassroots campaigning, so because of the emotional connection to guns, they are easily activated, and that is certainly a plus on their side,” said Karen Callaghan, a political science professor at Texas Southern University who is writing a book on the NRA.
Their members are loyal and, often, lifelong. For many, the organization offers a mark of identity.
“When the person’s a member of the NRA, most people know what that is. It speaks volumes of how they stand on issues, and it’s respected or hated by almost everybody,” said Brad Leeser, 58, a member of the NRA and Gun Owners of America in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Gun rights voters tend to be single-issue voters, meaning they prioritize gun rights over all other issues. Gun control supporters, on the other hand, tend to be less driven by the one issue.
“People on the other side of the debate, it’s a more diffused group, and so I think they’re disempowered for that reason,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan open-government nonprofit.
“The NRA and the gun lobby have done an amazing job over the last 30 years ... changing hearts and minds at every level up to the Supreme Court,” said Shaun Dakin, a volunteer who works with organizations including Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign. “Now the gun-violence-prevention movement has figured that out … Washington, D.C., will change when the culture changes and when they see people actually voting based on any particular issue.”
Building a grassroots effort is part of the gun control movement’s attempt to attract supporters and compete with the NRA.
“The only way we’re going to overcome the corporate gun lobby, the only way we’re going to change deeply entrenched social norms, is not to be about any one organization but be about the American public,” Gross, president of the Brady campaign said.
Among the gun rights groups, the NRA overshadows other organizations, but many groups want better collaboration.
“We work together when possible, but we don’t always communicate as well as we probably should,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.
Luke Wagner, a grassroots activist who is now the board president of the Colorado Second Amendment Association, said he works to develop ties with other gun rights groups.
“We don't have to be intrinsically tied to one another. We don't have to take instructions from one another. But we do have to be able to talk to one another and at least be sure we're all on the same page,” Wagner said.
Though some groups want more collaboration, gun rights organizations positioning themselves as alternatives to the NRA have grown financially in recent years.
Groups like Gun Owners of America, which opposes all gun control measures unequivocally, and the National Association for Gun Rights, a newcomer that is blatantly anti-NRA, are trying to challenge the older organization.
NAGR’s revenue grew 16 times from 2009 to 2012, an increase unparalleled by fellow gun rights organizations. Gun Owners of America’s revenue grew from about $1.8 million in 2011 to $2.4 million in 2012.
“The NRA has taken gun owners’ money and more importantly, their trust and used it to support those who have a horrible record when it comes to gun rights,” according to one NAGR press release. The group did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In May, the NRA called the tactics of another gun rights group, Open Carry Texas, “downright weird.” After protest from the group, which carries long guns in public to protest the Texas ban on the open carry of handguns, the NRA pulled the release from its website and replaced it with a message of unity.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.
For advocates like Nicki Kenyon, a writer for Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership and a former editor of an NRA magazine, the gun rights movement’s theme is unity of mission, if not unity in tactics.
“We may go about it in different ways. We may disagree on the tactics. But overall, we are an inclusive and we are a cohesive group of people whose only purpose is to protect our rights and freedoms,” she said.
But these groups are still small players compared to the NRA.
“The NRA is seen as the voice of gun owners. It doesn’t necessarily need much help,” said Grossmann, the Michigan State University professor.
Jacob Byk contributed to this story. He is the News21 Dix/Oliver fellow.
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