Column: Republican voters — not the NRA — are driving the GOP’s gun agenda

Protesters hold a rally in Houston, where the National Rifle Assn. convention was being held.
Protesters hold a rally across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, where the National Rifle Assn. annual convention was being held Friday.
(Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

In 2020, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was the top recipient of money from members of the “gun rights” industry. According to Open Secrets, his campaign received a total of $142,653 for the 2019-2020 cycle. That put the so-called gun lobby at 33 on the list, far behind other industries like real estate and accounting. Health professionals alone gave roughly seven times more money to Scalise ($1,072,904) than the gun lobby. Meanwhile, individuals who simply put down “retired” instead of any industry at all, gave 100 times more, just shy of $14 million.

Scalise’s corporate-connected and PAC donors tell a similar story. The largest donors were associated with Votesane PAC. They gave $106,500. Below that were the PACs and employees of various banks, airlines, military contractors and other businesses, all with contributions of less than $50,000. You won’t find on that list the National Rifle Assn., Smith & Wesson or anybody else from the “gun lobby.”

And yet, Scalise often touts his A+ rating from the NRA. For some opponents of gun rights, this is shocking since Scalise was gravely wounded in 2017 by a mass shooter. The brush with death, Scalise would say a few months later (in the wake of another mass shooting), only “fortified” his support for gun rights.


Say what you will about Scalise’s views on guns, they weren’t “bought and paid for” by the gun lobby. The same holds for the Republican Party generally. In 2020, the NRA gave less than $1 million directly to candidates — putting it 996th on the list of top donors. It spent $5.4 million on lobbying, making it the 169th-most lavish lobbyist. As Stephen Gutowski, founder of the Reload, a site focused on gun issues and politics, wrote in the Atlantic, since 2012, “the NRA’s highest contribution ranking has been 294th, and its highest lobbying ranking has been 85th.”

And yet, this claim that politicians like Scalise, and the GOP generally, are “owned” by the gun lobby is an article of faith for many. When some Republicans made the questionable choice of speaking at the NRA convention in Texas, just days after the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, the New York Times declared, “There is no better manifestation of the gun lobby’s total capture of so much of the G.O.P.”

This gets the political reality backward: The “gun lobby” is the tail, not the dog. Indeed, the NRA is a hot mess, and has probably never been weaker. It’s even tried to declare bankruptcy. Whatever you think of its policies, the GOP is not captured by puppet masters who have its “balls in a money clip,” in Jimmy Kimmel’s colorful phrase. The Republicans are following the will of their voters, or at least the voters who reliably turn out and vote on gun issues, particularly in GOP primaries.

Indeed, there’s something cowardly, lazy and undemocratic about blaming everything on the gun lobby. Politicians and activists have a tendency to pick fights with the opponents they want, rather than the ones they have. By demonizing a few unaccountable villains pulling the strings behind the curtains, advocates for tighter gun laws don’t have to confront the reality that millions of Americans simply disagree with them. A Pew Research Center survey in 2021, for instance, found that around half of Americans don’t believe that stricter gun ownership laws will lead to fewer mass shootings.

The truth is that special interests, like the NRA (or for that matter, Planned Parenthood), can have influence on policy by helping to motivate and mobilize voters.

Some blame the Senate’s structure because it gives a boost to red states. Thanks to trends like polarization and sorting, support for guns is much stronger in red states where gun ownership is higher. But ultimately, neither the filibuster nor the Senate are the source of the stalemate, voters are. And if your strategy for passing sweeping new legislation requires getting rid of the Senate, then you don’t have a strategy.

All of this may change because of the horror in Uvalde and I certainly hope lawmakers find some workable reforms, even if comprehensive solutions are unlikely. But if Uvalde does break the logjam, it won’t be because the gun lobby loosened its grip. It will be because voters changed their minds.