Column: ‘Thoughts and prayers’ and fistfuls of NRA money: Why America can’t control guns (a grim update)

Kelsey Friend, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, recounts Wednesday's gun massacre at her Florida school.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

“Today is that terrible day you pray never comes,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, tweeted Wednesday minutes after a former student opened fire at a high school in his home state, killing 17.

We’ll assume Rubio’s grief is genuine. But we wonder if, when he’s at home at night, he’s comforted by the thought that he’s one of the golden boys of the National Rifle Assn. Over his legislative career, Rubio has been the beneficiary of $3,303,355 in campaign spending by the NRA. That haul places him sixth among current members of Congress.

Rubio knows who butters his bread. On Thursday, in an appearance on Fox News, he said this about the tragedy that had befallen his own constituents:


“I think it’s important to know all of that before you jump to conclusions that there was some law that we could have passed that would have prevented it. And there may be, but shouldn’t we at least know the facts?”

This is as close as one can get to the National Rifle Association’s official line without issuing a press release on its letterhead.

President Trump, in a pro-forma public statement on the Parkland, Fla., shooting, ordered flags on government buildings to be flown at half-mast through Monday, but didn’t call for any reconsideration of the nation’s inexcusably lax gun laws. Last February, he scrapped an Obama-era regulation making it tougher for people with mental illnesses to buy a gun.

Perhaps Trump doesn’t want to risk disturbing the NRA, which spent more than $30 million in 2016 to support him and defeat his opponent, Hillary Clinton. (These figures come from the Center for Responsive Politics.)

In the aftermath of the Florida shooting, we can expect the usual outpouring of lame “thoughts and prayers” tweets and statements from political leaders, as if mere words can ever be a match for the stupendous political spending of the gun lobby.


As I wrote in October, following the Las Vegas massacre, “There is no better example of the corrosive effect of money on American politics than the spending of the National Rifle Assn.”

The 2016 election marked a high point in electoral spending by the NRA and its affiliate, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, with donations totaling $54 million. Much of that was devoted to the presidential campaign. The total so far this year comes to only $1.65 million, though the campaign season has not quite begun and the candidate roster for November is still in flux.

But the NRA’s partisan pattern of millions for Republicans and pennies for Democrats is holding up: The vast majority of NRA dollars has gone to support Republicans or oppose Democrats — the top Democratic career beneficiary of NRA contributions among current members of Congress, a Georgia congressman named Sanford Bishop, has received about $47,000, lifetime. He ranks 83rd among all members. So far this year, the NRA has spent $337,000 to oppose Democrats, and zero dollars in support

The NRA’s campaign spending is just one aspect of its decades-long assault on rational American firearms policy. The organization’s fingerprints are all over an effective 20-year ban on federal research into gun violence.

The NRA’s annual lobbying expenditures come to millions of dollars a year: Gun rights advocacy groups, of which the NRA is the kingpin, spent more than $135 million on lobbying in 1998-2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Gun manufacturers spent an additional $21 million. Those figures swamped the spending of gun control advocacy groups, which mustered only about $19 million in that period.

The NRA makes its legislative platform crystal clear, and puts its money where its mouth is. I reported last year that 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).

The gun lobby is strengthened by its affiliation with the right-wing libertarian lobby. In 2014, for example, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action received a $4.9-million donation from what was then known as the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is affiliated with the Koch brothers. The president of Freedom Partners at the time was Marc Short, who is currently President Trump’s director of legislative affairs — in other words, his chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

But it’s the NRA’s campaign spending that almost certainly poses the biggest roadblock to legislation that would stem the tide of gun violence in America. From 2010 through 2018 thus far, the organization donated $111 million to political campaigns of federal candidates.

In October, I matched the “thoughts and prayers” tweets of political figures against their take from the NRA. Here’s a sampling:

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

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10:15 a.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Sen. Rubio.