The Hard Reality: Gun Control Will Not Happen Without Campaign Finance Reform
• Jun 14, 2016
By Walker Bragman, Paste Magazine
As news rolls in about the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida which left 50 people dead, and for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, now seems a good time to reflect on one of America’s biggest issues: gun violence.
In June 2011, American born Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn released a video titled ‘Do Not Rely on Others, Take the Task Upon Yourself’, and called on Muslims to take advantage of America’s lax gun laws — specifically gun shows — and carry out lone wolf style attacks. In other words, our enemies know our dirtiest secret: or government is not protecting its people.
Guns kill roughly 30,000 people every year (33,636 in 2013, most of which were suicide), and injure over 100,000. Due to the inconsistency of regulatory schemes from state to state, and even county to county, these weapons are extremely easy to come by, and hard to monitor or control. Even in a city like Chicago, which at one point, had some of the toughest gun laws in the country, gun violence can still be rampant given the geographical proximity to areas without such protections and regulations. Guns travel easily across state and county lines.
In 2013, following the Sandy Hook massacre, the federal government sought to establish some semblance of uniformity to our nation’s gun laws with the Manchin-Toomey gun reforms. Polling from the time showed that Americans overwhelmingly favored an expansion of the background check to every gun sale, as well as tighter gun laws in general — but not the establishment of a federal database of gun owners. Machin-Toomey would have done just that: required every firearm sale (with exceptions for friends and family) to be subject to our National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as well as made illegal the creation of a national gun registry.
However, the proposed legislation failed in the Senate. It was, and still is, one of the President Barack Obama’s greatest defeats. An examination of why a proposal failed with overwhelming public support provides insight into the flaws with our system, and perhaps guidance for fighting these battles in the future.
At this point, it is no secret that our government has been taken over by the influence of money. A study by professors from Princeton and Northwestern University found that popular support has a negligible impact on policy outcomes — especially when compared to the demands of the wealthy elite. As I have written in previous articles, this staggering political inequality has a few direct causes:
The courts have rolled back the regulations on campaign finance and political speech in decisions. For example, Buckley v. Valeo held that money is a vehicle for speech, while Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC held that corporations and unions are people for the purposes or political spending, and as such may donate unlimited sums to independent expenditure groups, respectively. However, those independent expenditure groups are still subject to PAC registration and disclosure requirements. Still, thanks to the courts, we now have what are known as super PACs. These independent expenditure groups are forbidden from coordinating with political campaigns, but that does not stop them.
Unlike super PACs, nonprofit 501© organizations are not necessarily required to disclose their donors — and they’re tax exempt. 501©4 groups (dark money groups) are not held to such a requirement. Unlike super PACs, these groups may engage in issue advocacy only rather than express advocacy (for or against a politician). That said, whereas in the past, these organizations were limited to social welfare activities, over the years that has changed. Now political activity and social welfare are nearly indistinguishable, and the line between express and issue advocacy has become so blurred it hardly matters. Tax exempt groups are now able to engage in exclusively political activity.
The Revolving Door
Too often in our government, legislators and public officials leave office only to find themselves working in the industries they were charged with overseeing while in office — either as lobbyists or, in some cases, board members of major companies. That there are no laws currently barring this practice, known as the “revolving door,” allows big businesses to manipulate our elected leaders. After all, how likely is a lawmaker to crack down on his or her future employer?
Ineffective Regulatory Agencies
The Chairperson of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Ann M. Ravel, recently announced that due to political divides among the agency’s six commissioners the agency is unable to do its job preventing election abuse — which is widespread and unchecked. This recent announcement means that said abuse may continue, unhindered. On top of partisanship, there is immense political pressure on the FEC thanks to the courts. There are very few rules left.
Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), since coming under fire for trying to enforce the law forbidding nonprofits from engaging (primarily) in political activity, faced a backlash when conservative groups filing for 501©(4) nonprofit status cried foul over being held up in the process. These groups claimed that the government was persecuting conservatives. As it turned out, none of the stalled groups were actually denied while two liberal groups were. Moreover, the majority of groups applying to become dark money organizations were conservative. Nevertheless, the narrative spread, and the agency has never recovered.
This past January, the IRS gave up the fight for greater transparency when it withdrew a rule that would have required nonprofits to collect the social security numbers of their donors, and announced it would not impose new rules on dark money groups until after the 2016 election.
And so now we are left with a system where the influence of money is unchecked and corrosive. Given the numerous ways for major industries to have an impact our elections and leaders, and given the inability of our government to curb abuse, is it any wonder why legislators spend half of their time fundraising, and why so many refuse to stand up to special interests?
The gun rights lobby, which represents individual gun owners but mostly gun manufacturers, has consistently outspent the gun control lobby by massively slanted ratios. In 2010, the National Rifle Association (NRA) alone, outspent the entire gun control lobby 9.5-to-1. Today that ratio has evened out significantly, but is still stacked on one side: 2-to-1. However, the gun rights lobby still outspends the gun control lobby 6.7-to-1.
That spending from gun rights groups takes the form of political advertising which can either be positive or negative. The NRA doles out cash depending on a legislator’s assigned “Grade” — an evaluation of their voting record on guns to see how aligned that person is with the cause of less gun regulation.
Over the years, the gun rights lobby has been able to intimidate our legislators with their power and influence. That’s why Congress previously banned the use of federal funds for gun research (but the ban has been lifted), why it has protected gun manufacturers from products liability suits (with some exceptions), and why it has failed to act on gun control in spite of mass shooting after mass shooting and terrorists lauding our lax regulations.
A quick note: people are often divided on gun manufacturer liability under the mistaken belief that liability is only for defective products. This is not the case. In products liability, if one can show that a reasonable alternative design would have prevented the injury, there can be liability.
While the Republican Party has been seemingly unwilling to address the issue of gun violence, both rhetorically and legislatively, the Democratic Party is not much better. For all their talk of curbing gun violence, Democrats have shown little willingness to fully address our broken campaign finance system. They have talked about overturning Citizens United, which is a good step, but is not nearly enough. The presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has not seriously addressed the issue as a part of her campaign platform, and yet made guns a central point of difference between herself and Senator Bernie Sanders. However, if we are going curb gun violence we must change how our system operates. As Sanders says, “We need a revolution.”