Michael Hiltzik Columnist
Column

'Thoughts and prayers' — and fistfuls of NRA money: Why America can't control guns

There is no better example of the corrosive effect of money on American politics than the spending of the National Rifle Assn.

The gun rights organization spent a stupendous $54.4 million in the 2016 election cycle, almost all of it in “independent expenditures,” meaning spending for or against a candidate but not a direct contribution to a campaign. The money went almost entirely to Republicans to a degree that almost looks like a misprint (but isn’t): Of independent expenditures totaling $52.6 million, Democrats received $265.

If you’re looking for a reason that politicians are quick to declare that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims of the horrific slaughters that have become virtually routine in American life, but do nothing further to stop them, look no further.

The Center for Responsive Politics has compiled the baleful figures on the NRA’s election spending for its Open Secrets website. A spreadsheet showing totals spent on behalf of individual members of Congress through 2016 is here; the center is working to update the figures, and we will publish them once it does. The Washington Post has an interactive web page showing NRA contributions since 1998 to current members of Congress.

As the Center for Responsive Politics observes, the recipients of NRA largess almost always let their pocketbooks do the voting for them. The NRA endowed the 54 senators who voted in 2015 against a measure prohibiting people on the government’s terrorist watch list from buying guns with $37 million in support; only one Democrat voted against the measure — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who has never received NRA support.

The NRA also gave $27 million in direct and indirect support to 50 senators who voted against a bill to require universal background checks for firearms purchases (with Heitkamp again the only Democrat voting no).

Here’s a sampling of NRA direct and indirect spending for a sample of political leaders, paired with their sanctimonious statements prompted by the Las Vegas massacre:

President Trump:My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!” The NRA spent more than $30 million to help elect Trump, including more than $19 million attacking his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):Cindy & I are praying for the victims of the terrible #LasVegasShooting & their families. We appreciate the bravery of all first responders.” NRA spending reached $7.7 million for McCain and against his Senate electoral opponents by 2016, placing him first among all members of Congress. McCain did vote in favor of the 2015 bill mandating universal background checks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.):This is a moment for national mourning and for prayer.” NRA support by 2016: $1.3 million.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa): “My prayers are with all of the victims in Las Vegas and their loved ones affected by this senseless act of violence.” NRA financial support since 2014: $3.1 million.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.):Saddened by the tragic loss of life in #LasVegas. My thoughts are with all of the families affected by this horrific attack.” NRA support by 2016: $4.6 million.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.):Praying for all the victims & those impacted by the tragedy.” NRA support by 2016: $122,802.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.):Susan and I send our deepest condolences and prayers to the families of the victims of this horrific and senseless tragedy in Las Vegas.” NRA support by 2016: $5.5 million.

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UPDATES:

9:44 a.m.: This post has been updated with new figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

8:23 a.m., Oct. 4: This post has been updated to remove a reference to NRA spending attributed to support of Bernie Sanders after Opensecrets corrected its database to remove a figure characterizing money the NRA spent in opposition to Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the Democratic primary, as spending in support of Sanders. Sen. Sanders has received no direct support from the NRA.

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