12/19/2012 01:56 pm ET

Gun Control Groups Reignited, Becoming Political Threat After Long Dormant Period

WASHINGTON -- When five-term Democratic Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) lost to Democratic state Sen. Negrete McLeod in a surprise upset in November, no one saw it coming.

Except for maybe the San Bernardino County representative's true opponent: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

From 3,000 miles away, Bloomberg spent $3.3 million of his own money -- more than double what both candidates spent combined -- through his super PAC, Independence USA, to defeat the pro-gun Baca in his Southern California district.

He also sent a message on an issue that was politically ceded long ago to the National Rifle Association (NRA).

"If there's any Democrat in Congress who doesn't know that Mike Bloomberg just spent $3.3 million defeating Joe Baca, who was much worse on guns than he needed to be for his district, then their consultants are guilty of malpractice," said Mark Glaze, the executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, founded by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

Bloomberg's move into political action over gun control marks a stark departure from the recent state of the gun control movement's political efforts. That is, it is something, where for some time there was practically nothing.

Since 2004, major gun control groups, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is the lobbying arm of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, largely abandoned political action. They drastically reduced campaign contributions, and funds for lobbying and independent campaign contributions. In doing so, they left grassroots gun control supporters without a vehicle for political action in Washington.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, gun control groups spent $1.35 million on lobbying in 2004, already down from a high of $2.13 million in 2001. That fell to $240,000 in 2011. Gun control groups gave $165,975 in campaign contributions -- mostly through the Brady Campaign's political action committee (PAC) -- in 2004, also down from the more than $580,000 given in 2000. In 2012, gun control campaign contributions were a paltry $4,036.

The overall funding of the Brady Campaign, the largest gun control lobby group, tells a similar story. According to tax filings accessed through Guidestar, the group spent $7.8 million in 2004 on its various programs, already down from a high of $11 million in 2000. Every single year since 2004, the Brady Campaign's budget has dropped and, in 2010, the last year tax records are available, it stood at $3.1 million.

"The only way you change [the gun laws] is you change elected officials and politicians, and unless you are participating in that process you're not going make the change you need," said Joe Sudbay, a former political director of the Brady Campaign (then known as Handgun Control Inc.) who also worked for the Violence Policy Center.

The Brady Campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some of the group's funding dried up due to forces outside of its control. The recession that began in 2008 hit all nonprofits hard, especially gun control groups which already relied on a small roster of donors. Fundraising was made all the more difficult by two diametrically opposing forces: hope and cynicism.

"On the one hand you get [Barack Obama], who supports sensible gun laws, elected president of the United States, so you've got some folks who feel, 'Okay, I don't have to help as much," says former Brady Center President Mike Barnes. "On the other hand, you've got a Congress that's so unfriendly to the issue that a lot of people feel it's hopeless. It's sort of the worst of both worlds."

But even before both Obama's election and the recession, the gun control movement was flagging.

Political spending began to erode after the 2000 election when then-President Bill Clinton and a stream of Democratic political consultants blamed Vice President Al Gore's loss on his stance on guns. Gore avoided discussions about guns during the campaign, changing the subject to streamlining government when asked about it during a debate.

The Brady Campaign contributed to help successfully elect pro-gun control senators in Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington, but the narrative that guns cost Gore the election became dogma among Democrats.

"It was so amazing how ingrained that became in the D.C. crowd," Sudbay said.

Immediately following the 2000 election, the Brady Campaign, under the leadership of Barnes, moved to merge with the Million Mom March to create grassroots chapters in each state.

"I saw it as a potentially strong grassroots movement to support sensible gun laws and that was why I reached out to them," Barnes explains. "And they had some financial issues and were struggling, and I proposed that we merge and we would have chapters around the country of the Million Mom March that would be affiliated with the Brady Campaign."

Many people involved in the gun control movement, however, have since claimed that this effort took away valuable resources from the Brady Campaign and, in many ways, hurt the gun control movement by forcing the organization to sink money into the struggling Million Mom March chapters.

After Gore's loss, the expensive merger with the Million Mom March and a series of internal fights, gun control activists saw support from Democrats, longtime allies, evaporate -- and with them, money.

"The fact that there isn't a powerful gun control lobby anymore, allows Democrats to pick gun control as the one issue where they aren't liberal," said Glaze.

But that appears to be changing as pro-gun Democrats begin to tiptoe away from the NRA, while funerals for the 20 dead children and six adults, victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last week, continue in Newtown, Conn. Police suspect Adam Lanza, a lone gunman who was armed with a military-style assault weapon, in the deaths.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), an NRA endorsee who famously shot a copy of cap and trade legislation with a rifle in a campaign advertisement, told MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Monday, "It's time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way. ... Everything has to be on the table."

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) have also indicated that they are reconsidering their previous pro-gun positions.

And, as Glaze noted, if these lawmakers are concerned about political fallout from the NRA, they need look no further than San Bernardino. Just as Bloomberg did in New York state over the issue of gay marriage, he is providing political backing to lawmakers who support gun control and opposition to those who do not.

"I’m going to do what I think is appropriate to try to impact the dialogue … Shame on me if I don’t," Bloomberg told reporters when asked if he would match the $300 million annual budget of the NRA.

Another source of political support that pro-gun Democrats could look to is the online progressive movement, known as the netroots, which has recently taken a strong turn post-Sandy Hook to gun control activism.

CREDO Action, the political arm of progressive mobile phone company CREDO Mobile, held a protest at the NRA headquarters on Monday and vows to continue action against the NRA, gun manufacturers and gun sellers across the country.

"People don't think it's just the responsibility of the gun control groups to solve this problem. It's all of our responsibility to try and solve this problem," says CREDO political director Becky Bond.

Sudbay, a veteran of the old gun control fights, praised the progressive movement's shift toward tackling gun control. "That is a really welcome infusion of energy and people into the debate. To me, that's a very, very, very important development seeing those guys involved."



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