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How the Gun-Rights Lobby Won After Newtown

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Even by the standards of mass public shootings in America, what happened last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staggering. Twenty-six victims, most no older than seven, were gunned down in their classrooms days before Christmas.

For gun-control advocates, Newtown offered an unprecedented moment to push to reform the nation’s gun laws. The day of the shooting, a visibly moved President Barack Obama called for “meaningful action.” One month later, a coalition of grieving Sandy Hook parents vowed to fight nationwide for “sensible solutions to prevent gun violence.” Some politicians with top ratings from the National Rifle Association (NRA) even indicated they’d be willing to consider new laws.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, the gun-rights lobby outspent, out-organized and out-maneuvered gun-control advocates at both the state and federal level. A FRONTLINE examination of state legislation and federal lobbying expenditures shows that gun-rights groups outspent gun-control backers by nearly $10 million, and that around the country, states passed more than twice as many laws expanding gun owners’ rights than they did gun-control measures.

Representatives of the two top national gun lobbying organizations declined to talk to FRONTLINE about their efforts this past year. But records show that since Sandy Hook, 27 states have passed 93 laws expanding gun rights, including measures allowing people to carry concealed weapons in churches, public parks and schools, and to accept gun permits from neighboring states. In Congress, gun-rights lobbyists helped defeat the most comprehensive reform bill proposed in nearly two decades.

What happened?

“As upset as people who don’t own guns are about the misuse of guns — and of course gun owners are too — at the end of the day, they aren’t going to vote for or against you on the basis of what you do on this issue,” said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association, who advocates what he calls “effective solutions” on guns. “Gun owners are going to vote, and they care deeply about this issue.”

Gun-control advocates say that they’re just beginning to gain momentum to challenge the well-funded and organized gun-rights movement. But they’ve also run up against the current political reality of guns in the U.S.

“These Are Good Bills”

Within three months of the shooting, states were consider more than 1,000 pieces of legislation — about half to expand gun rights, and the other half to curtail them.

By the end of 2013, only 43 gun-control laws had passed, nearly one-quarter of them in California.

Colorado legislators passed four laws, including expanded background checks and a ban on most magazines with more than 15 rounds. But the outcry among gun-rights supporters was so great that two senators who voted for the measures were recalled in September, and another stepped down last month to avoid being ousted. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running for re-election next year, is also struggling to stay ahead in the polls.

In Rhode Island, gun-rights advocates successfully lobbied to modify proposed gun-control bills until they felt they didn’t impose on firearm owners’ rights. The Providence Journal documented the House vote:

“They’ve been kind to us gun folks,” said Rep. Doreen Marie Costa on the House floor. “I want to make sure the NRA people and the [Federated Rhode Island Sportsmen’s Club] can hear this,” Costa added, as the lobbyists and gun-rights advocates watched from the balcony. “These are good bills.”

 MAP: Which states have passed gun bills since Newtown?

A New Gun-Rights Power

In January, President Obama announced 23 executive actions intended to strengthen the enforcement of existing gun laws. Last month, he touted some progress, including improving the national background-check database and appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a post that’s been vacant for seven years.

But the administration’s major effort to pass what would have been the most sweeping reform in nearly two decades — new legislation that would have expanded background checks to include gun shows and online sales — failed within months in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The legislation was staunchly opposed by gun-rights groups, including a powerful newcomer in the federal arena.

The National Association for Gun Rights, or NAGR, which considers itself to the right of the powerful NRA, spent nearly $6 million in lobbying this year through September 2013 — more than double what the NRA paid out and far more than any other group on either side of the debate.

The NAGR was founded in 2001, but until this year it focused mainly on advocacy, keeping local groups apprised of gun legislation in their states. The source of its funding isn’t clear because as a 501(c)4, the NAGR isn’t required to disclose its backers.

The group’s leadership has ties to former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The group’s executive vice president, Dudley Brown, declined to talk to FRONTLINE for this story. But earlier this year, Brown told the Center for Responsive Politics that the Sandy Hook shooting prompted the group to get involved on the federal level.

“We had not hired a federal lobbyist previous to that point, and we immediately started seeking one out after Connecticut,” he said. The group gained notoriety for running attack ads again Republican members of Congress, including Eric Cantor, the House majority whip, accusing them of supporting the president’s gun-control initiatives.

CHART:Who’s spending the most on firearms lobbying?

The “Connecticut Effect”

Gun-control advocates have never been as organized, as wealthy or as motivated as gun-rights groups, so even with the newfound momentum that some have called the “Connecticut effect,” they’re working at a disadvantage.

But in 2013, gun-control advocates marked several victories, including in Connecticut, one of the few states to pass comprehensive gun control legislation. After the shooting, gun-control groups in the state gained thousands of new members. Suburban moms speed-dialed legislators every Friday at 9:30 a.m., the moment the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary began. Other groups formed to march against gun violence, and advocates showed up at legislative hearings to counter pro-gun supporters.

That kind of grassroots power is new for the gun-control movement — and something they admit will take years to replicate nationwide. The goal: create enough baseline support for legislators so they can vote for gun-control measures without fearing for their political lives.

“A year ago, not only were we swimming against the tide, there wasn’t much hope at all that people felt in terms of passing laws that would actually save lives,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Now, he said, “We’re on the right trajectory. Every day that we wake up, we’re focused on continuing that momentum that we’ve established, with grassroots organizing across the country, new levels of membership, and funding that this issue hasn’t seen in years. It all is headed in the right direction.”

The question now is what happens next year, as the 2014 midterm elections approach. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the largest gun-control group in terms of lobbying expenditures, plans to continue to back politicians who side with them and attack those who don’t. The Brady Campaign says it’s working with federal lawmakers to craft a new background-check bill, although they declined to name names on a recent conference call with reporters.

“It will take us awhile to match what the NRA has accomplished in two decades, but I think it’s happening a lot faster than anyone thought it would,” said Mark Glaze, Mayors’ director.

But the gun-rights movement isn’t likely to lose its momentum, either. The NAGR rallied its supporters this week to oppose Congress’ extension of a ban on plastic guns that can avoid detection by airport security. Although the bill passed, it lacked new restrictions proposed by gun-control supporters.

And, the NRA, which plans to reintroduce gun-rights legislation that failed at the state level, has billed 2014 as the “biggest battle for gun rights in our lifetime.”

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