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NRA clout rooted more in its tactics than its election spending

WASHINGTON — Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado vowed last week to push for a federal law banning high-capacity ammunition magazines — a measure she sees as a modest restriction after the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater, where police say the gunman used a 100-round magazine.

But she concedes that it faces long odds.

“There’s been a group of us working on this for many, many years, but we can’t seem to get it brought up by leadership,” the eight-term Democrat said. “I think they’re afraid of the influence of the NRA.”

The National Rifle Assn. — with more than 4 million members and an annual budget that exceeds $200 million — has dominated the debate on guns in Congress and statehouses across the country.

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But an examination of the group’s spending suggests the NRA’s influence on Capitol Hill derives more from its fearsome reputation than from a substantial investment in federal election campaigns.

Tax returns show the NRA spends far more on staff than on federal races. In 2010, for example, it spent $51.6 million on salaries and benefits for its employees, including more than $1 million for Kayne B. Robinson, the executive director for general operations, and nearly $1 million for Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre.

That election cycle, it reported spending less than $8.4 million on independent campaigns for congressional candidates, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The NRA handed out $1.28 million directly to federal candidates, 70% of it to Republicans.

Nowadays, the NRA’s political activity is dwarfed by that of GOP-allied advocacy groups such as Crossroads GPS that pump tens of millions of dollars into races around the country. As those groups help elect conservatives, who are almost uniformly pro-gun rights, they also further the NRA’s agenda.

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As one of its major victories this year, the NRA bragged about taking out Sen. Richard G. Lugar(R-Ind.), who received an F rating from the group after he voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. But it contributed just one-fifth of the $3.3 million in outside money spent against Lugar in the GOP primary, which was won by a tea party-backed challenger.

Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control,” said that the NRA’s electoral influence has been exaggerated, adding that the group’s “bark is a lot more annoying than their bite.”

But the NRA’s reputation as a political behemoth has been enough to freeze the gun control debate on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, as Congress passed a resolution condemning the Aurora shootings, even leading Democrats trod carefully around the issue of gun control. “We all recognize the importance of the 2nd Amendment and also the need to reduce violence in our communities,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the minority leader.

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The NRA declined an interview request. “The NRA believes that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal,” the group said in a statement after the theater shooting rampage. “There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions.”

Much of the group’s influence stems from a relentless lobbying effort, in Washington and throughout the country, driven by a staff of 80, and a huge and well-organized grass-roots base. In 2010, it spent nearly $81 million on member communication and mailings. This year, it is running a voter registration drive called Trigger the Vote.

Politicians in rural states and swing districts covet an A rating from the NRA. Candidates who advocate gun control can count on the NRA to fire back with postcards from its members and critical letters to the editor.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) received a swift rebuke from gun rights advocates through a blistering column in a local newspaper recently after he circulated a letter of support for a United Nations arms trade treaty.

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“That’s the kind of thing you combat on a daily basis,” Grijalva said. “They’ll contact their membership: ‘He’s taking away your guns.’ Exaggerations. Their influence is not about politics — it’s about threats.”

In a speech Thursday on the Senate floor calling for both sides to compromise, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), author of the now-expired federal assault weapons ban, said that the NRA’s strength is that it can mobilize “2, 3, 4 million people who care passionately about this issue … at the drop of a hat.”

With new gun control measures blocked on Capitol Hill, the NRA has begun to use its muscle in a broader realm.

The group recently helped persuade House legislators to hold Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt over a fight to get documents related to a botched federal gun-tracking operation.

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When campaign finance reform advocates tried to pass a bill to require outside groups that engage in elections to identify their top donors, the NRA made sure it would be exempt.

Meanwhile, the group has poured resources into an aggressive push for gun rights at the state level.

In 1981, for example, only two states allowed residents to easily obtain permits to tote concealed handguns in public, and only one required no permit. Now, in 35 states people can readily get concealed-carry permits, and four have no permit requirements.

The group also helped pass “stand your ground” laws in more than two dozen states, giving people expanded rights to fire in self-defense rather than first retreating.

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Since 12 people were killed and 58 injured July 20 in Aurora, talk of enacting stricter gun control measures has revived in Colorado. “There will be gun control measures introduced,” said Eileen McCarron, president of the pro-gun-control Colorado Ceasefire Capitol Fund. “Passed is a whole different matter.”

Part of the NRA’s power stems from memories Democrats have of two major political losses: the 1994 GOP takeover of the House of Representatives and Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 presidential election. According to political lore, both stem from Democratic support for gun control — a factor Spitzer said has been overstated.

Still, Democrats have since recruited candidates who are more friendly to gun rights.

Brian Malte, director of legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, contends that the NRA has created an image of influence that exceeds reality. “There’s a perception that, ‘If I don’t go with them, they’ll knock me out.’ But they don’t do that,” he said.

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Liberal critics argue that there’s little evidence the NRA’s money makes much difference in a congressional race. A recent analysis in ThinkProgress by Paul Waldman, a contributing editor at the American Prospect, found that in 22 recent Senate races in which the NRA spent more than $100,000, its record was mixed: 10 of its candidates won and 12 lost.

At the same time, gun control advocacy groups have struggled to match the NRA in finances and influence. The Brady Campaign spends a little more than $3 million per year.

“We haven’t done enough to match what the NRA has been able to accomplish,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Legislators who fear the NRA’s wrath can’t count on the same kind of financial and grass-roots support from the pro-gun-control side, he said.

An elected official, he said, could rightly ask: “What am I going to get from you people? Thanks for a job well done?”

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joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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