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With The NRA Under Fire, Gun Control Groups Flex Campaign Muscles

Jack Sinclair, holding the O sign, with other supporters of Moms Demand Action, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January.
Jack Sinclair, holding the O sign, with other supporters of Moms Demand Action, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January.

Jack Sinclair first started donating to groups that support stricter gun regulations in 2013 — after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“After the Las Vegas shooting, I decided it was time to stop being just a periodic donor, and I became a monthly donor,” Sinclair said, referring to the October 2017 incident in which a shooter opened fire on hundreds of concertgoers at a music festival.

He got more involved: He lived in California at the time and joined a local chapter of Moms Demand Action.

“It was good to talk to people who cared about the same issue that I did. And then a month after my first meeting was Parkland, and I kind of just dove in,” he said. “My wife and I both became leaders within our local group and have been involved ever since.”

Last summer they moved to Indian Trail, North Carolina, a suburb about 16 miles from downtown Charlotte. He’s now the volunteer elections lead with the North Carolina Chapter of Moms Demand Action.

In many ways, Sinclair typifies a growing chunk of the progressive electorate, one that groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety are hoping to target. They are spending on campaign ads at a level usually only seen by major players, like the National Rifle Association, as they seek to flip statehouses across the country to Democratic control, especially in battleground states like North Carolina, Arizona and Texas.

The $60 million Everytown says it will spend on the 2020 election cycle is acting like wind in the back of its sails. That spending commitment includes $5 million in North Carolina and is targeted specifically at suburban General Assembly districts.

Everytown, which is backed by Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire and former New York City mayor, has copied that strategy in swing states around the country. By Election Day, the group says it will have spent $8 million in Texas, $5 million each in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida, and millions combined in states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Georgia and Iowa.

At the same time, the National Rifle Association, which for years has been the 800-pound gorilla in gun-related politics, is facing troubles. In August, New York Attorney General Letitia James moved to dissolve the nonprofit, saying the gun group is “fraught with fraud and abuse.” The NRA has laid off workers and been tied up in a legal battle with longtime marketing partner Ackerman McQueen.

“There’s no question about it. The gun safety movement has never been stronger, and the NRA has never been weaker,” said Everytown President John Feinblatt. “The NRA is on the ropes like never before. This November, it’s our job to knock them out.”

The NRA has a long history of influencing policymakers. From 2004 through 2014, the National Rifle Association reported $76 million of outside spending in federal elections, almost all of which was dedicated to helping Republican candidates win, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2016 cycle alone, the NRA spent $54 million.

This cycle, its spending has dropped to $20 million, according to data reported Oct. 21 by the Federal Elections Commission.

Conversely, Everytown reported no outside spending on federal elections until the 2018 cycle, when it reported $5 million. It has committed to spending $60 million at the federal and state levels in the 2020 cycle. Along with political contributions from Giffords and Brady, that will likely make this the first election in which groups supporting stricter gun regulations outspend the NRA.

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter declined to give a figure of what the NRA plans to spend in the whole cycle. The most recent federal election spending reports run only through Sept. 30; some further reporting, while not comprehensive, is available through only Oct. 21. However, she said that the NRA’s strength comes from its membership, not just its campaign cash.

“The NRA’s power has always been in the millions of gun owners who vote to protect the Second Amendment,” said Hunter, drawing a contrast to Everytown, which generates substantial portions of its revenue from Bloomberg’s own finances.

“Anyone who tries to equate money with influence needs to look at where the source of that money comes from.The NRA thrives on small donations from countless donors across the country, whereas Everytown is funded by a very small number of elitist donors,” she added. “In America, the wealthy get the same number of votes as everyone else: one.”

A Local Focus

Everytown says it is focusing not just on presidential politics, but on state-level races as well. It has earmarked $1.6 million out of the $5 million it plans to spend on advertising and voter drives in North Carolina to flip the state’s General Assembly to Democratic control, targeting 10 state House and four state Senate races. The group had never before spent any money in North Carolina statehouse races, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the N.C. Board of Elections. While it gives some money directly to candidates, the vast majority of this spending is independent, meaning ads that are not coordinated with campaigns.

By taking this approach, Feinblatt said he hopes to repeat a strategy that worked in 2018 in Virginia, where the General Assembly flipped from Republican to Democratic control. In the subsequent legislative session, lawmakers passed new regulations around background checks, so-called red flag laws, and more. In North Carolina this year, that means backing candidates in suburban districts and specifically targeting women voters. Feinblatt said he sees a shift in how suburbs lean.

That means running ads supporting Democratic challenger Nicole Quick in districts like North Carolina’s state House 59, which covers Guilford County to the north and east of Greensboro. The incumbent in that district, Republican state Rep. Jon Hardister, has an A+ rating from the NRA Political Victory Fund. Quick said gun issues aren’t the most important in this election, but that she was a supporter of the kinds of legislation that passed in Virginia.

“I think there’s some commonsense things we can do that don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights that save lives,” said Quick.

While she says the COVID-19 pandemic is the 2020 campaign’s top issue, Quick has highlighted some gun issues that she says would have broad support. For instance, a bill introduced in February would have authorized some school faculty or staff to carry handguns in order to respond to threats of violence.

“I don’t know any teachers personally who think that’s a good idea,” she said. “They have enough to worry about without worrying about securing a weapon or shooting accurately in a classroom. There are things like that, that I think most people agree are not good ideas, and there is some common ground to be found as far as being able to protect our kids in schools and people in public venues.”

The bill, offered as an amendment to a much larger school spending bill, did not get a hearing.

Battling In Swing States Nationwide

North Carolina is not the only political battleground for gun groups. Everytown has taken a similar strategy in Arizona and Texas, as well. The group says ad campaigns in those states will target young, Black, and Latino voters and focus on health care issues in addition to the core message around gun control.

In Texas, the group says it is targeting 12 state House districts to flip the Legislature.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic is issue No. 1 in many races across the country. Everytown has been running an advertisement it calls the “Two Crises” campaign which argues that states face “two health crises: COVID-19 and gun violence.” To some outside analysts, that indicates how far the movement for stricter gun laws has come.

“They’re out to win. And they’re going to do it in the most effective ways, whether it highlights their core issue or not,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.

In the early 2000s, Kessler worked as Americans for Gun Safety’s director of policy and research and said he has since seen a shift in the balance of power. Though groups advocating stricter gun laws used to be smaller players, now they’ve caught up to the NRA.

“I think the balance may have shifted in the other direction, even at this point,” Kessler said. “And I believe, you know, after a lot of fits and starts, I believe that we are on the cusp of passing reasonable, but important, new gun laws at the state and federal level.”

Kessler has worked on gun issues for decades. During that time, he has fought as the underdog compared to organizations that advocate for looser gun regulations. But he sees 2020 differently: “Coupled with the weakness of the NRA, this could be the beginning of a new era on guns.”

In states like North Carolina, however, that’s no slam dunk. With a strong rural voting bloc and 33% of registered voters not registered with a political party, it’s not a simple red vs. blue issue.

“It really isn’t always so easily definable as, ‘Oh, you’re a Democrat. You’re for gun restrictions.’ Well, no, that’s not typically the case,” said David McLennan, professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh. “The name NRA still carries a lot of weight. So I think [the NRA’s] influence is not just in terms of campaign contributions, but they are very effective in direct lobbying.”

But McLennan also sees the growing influence of groups advocating for stricter gun control measures. Particularly as Everytown has distributed ads outside of its core issue.

“They want to be perceived as players,” he said. “And so I think it’s sort of kind of like in fishing: You have to chum a little bit to get the fish to come. I think in politics, you have to get into the game in order to be perceived as a player down the road.”

And, of course, in some ways it’s a numbers game. Everytown is far more likely to succeed at passing gun legislation if Democrats control one or both chambers of state legislatures in North Carolina and other states. And gun regulations are often a nonstarter at the federal level.

“It’s part of that idea of getting the chamber or chambers ready to introduce gun legislation. And that’s just been impossible to do, particularly during this decade, because bills don’t go anywhere,” McLennan said. “These would be the kind of candidates that if they did get elected, would be very amenable to at least listening to groups like this and their positions on guns.”

WUNC’s Caitlin Leggett contributed to this story. Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.