The Oncoming Gun Debate: Grassroots vs. Big Money

The types of donors who write big checks to super PACs are writing more to the Gabrielle Giffords-led group seeking to influence the upcoming debate on gun control:

Until now, the gun lobby’s political contributions, advertising and lobbying have dwarfed spending from anti-gun violence groups. No longer. With Americans for Responsible Solutions engaging millions of people about ways to reduce gun violence and funding political activity nationwide, legislators will no longer have reason to fear the gun lobby.

On the other hand, the NRA faced enormous public pressure to cave to gun control forces in the wake of Sandy Hook, stayed silent for a week and then botched their first public statement after the massacre, and then added 100,000 new members in the ensuing weeks.  That’s 100,000 new NRA members in a month when the political environment should have been driving people away from the organization.  That doesn’t count what people within the NRA call “psychic members” – people who claim NRA membership due to an enthusiasm of the organization’s ideals but don’t chip in the $25 membership fee.

Speaking of that membership fee, some simple math means the NRA has raised $2.5 million of their own.  This week one donor gave $1 million to Giffords’s PAC.  While a handful of donors will likely raise millions at a time to support anti-gun politicians, the NRA will be able to raise dollars by the fistful from a much broader base of support.

If that model sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Obama 2012’s quarterly bragging that a wide base of small-dollar donors would trump Mitt Romney’s billionaire buddies (which it did).  Remember the Republican super PACs that tried to support Romney by spending huge amounts of money running constant TV ads opposing Obama’s reelection?  Remember how well that worked against Obama’s surgical GOTV efforts?  Exactly.

All else being equal, boots on the ground will trump money in the air.

The term “Astroturf” tends to be over-used in Washington.  But Giffords’ PAC is actually Astroturf: flooding money into the system to combat the organic political influence of 4.2 million Americans.  The NRA has a big idea (gun rights) and a big group of people who support it and are motivated enough to take action.  They’ll call their Members of Congress, they’ll talk to their friends and neighbors, and they’ll vote.

There isn’t a check big enough to buy that kind of influence.

Shooting themselves in the foot?

Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter’s comments about the Plaxico Burress situation underscore the fact that every story has two sides. And fellow Giants wide receiver Steve Smith probably wished he had a gun when he was robbed at gunpoint a couple weeks ago outside his gated community in New Jersey.

Many gun rights groups would probably tell you they wish this story would go away, since it’s tough to make a black professional athlete into a hero. But this offers an opportunity for groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America to get in front of the story – and with a new administration on the way in, it would smart to frame the story as positively as possible.

Given that Burress flaunted many values groups like the NRA hold dear – by all accounts, the gun was improperly licensed at best and he clearly didn’t have the safety on – they can still condemn his action, which they should. However, rather than issuing a hollow criticism of a public figure, they could follow it up by offering free gun safety courses at NFL training camps.

The NFL would likely turn them down, but gun rights groups could at least say they made an effort to help players handle firearms responsibly – and in the process, earn some much-needed positive press.

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