Gun Rights vs Gun Control

  • U.S. gun ownership: 88.8 per 100 people

  • Pro-gun rights money
    to Trump: $969,138
    to Clinton: $48,013

  • Pro-gun control money
    to Clinton: $1,100,698
    to Trump: $1,984

See contributions from gun control and gun rights groups to members of Congress, as well as current NRA data

The fatal shooting in October 2017 at a Las Vegas music festival, which killed 58 concertgoers and injured hundreds more, is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Only 16 months earlier, a gunman armed with a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle murdered 49 people and injured 58 at an Orlando nightclub in what was then the country’s worst mass shooting.

The horrific attack came less than six months after a man and a woman opened fire at a San Bernardino, California, social services center, killing 14 and injuring 22.

And with each mass shooting — from Columbine to Sandy Hook; Fort Hood to Virginia Tech — the national debate over gun ownership renews.


A couple embraces following a shooting that killed multiple people at a social services facility on Dec. 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, Calif. (David Bauman/The Press-Enterprise via AP)

Despite the outpouring of grief and sympathy that followed the San Bernardino incident on Dec. 2, 2015, the very next day the Senate rejected a bill to tighten background check requirements on would-be gun buyers — just as it did in 2013, shortly after a lone gunman killed six adults and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Whether 2017 will be any different remains to be seen. In fact, the issue of how to strike a balance between gun rights and public safety has been a political hot potato for years, and one that Congress has dealt with gingerly — too gingerly, in the view of groups favoring tighter firearms regulations.

The political climate of 2017 would hardly seem auspicious for action on the issue. Republicans generally oppose any type of gun control legislation — only four of 54 Senate Republicans voted in favor of the 2015 background check bill — and the GOP controls Congress until at least 2019. President Donald Trump pledged to protect Second Amendment rights if elected in 2016.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, made 14 televised statements following a mass shooting and supported multiple gun control bills during his eight years in office.

In June 2016, Democrats mounted a successful filibuster that forced Senate Republicans to vote on four gun control proposals — none of which passed.

A .44 caliber political issue

The last major piece of gun control legislation to make it into law was the assault weapons ban, which passed in 1994 as part of a larger crime-related bill approved by Congress and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. But the ban, which applied to the manufacture of 19 specific models of semi-automatic firearms and other guns with similar features, expired in 2004, and repeated attempts to renew it have failed.

84% of Americans

support expanding background checks to include private firearm sales and purchases at gun shows, including a majority of Republican respondents. (Source: Pew Research Center, June 2017)

Some Democrats thought their support for the assault weapons ban cost them control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. Whether or not that’s true, there’s little question that the politics of gun ownership have swung to the right. Republicans largely oppose gun control, and Democrats are split, with some lawmakers cautious about going against the views of more conservative constituencies, especially in rural districts.

That was true among the 2016 presidential candidates. Eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton contrasted herself with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the issue of gun control during their primary-season debates. And after nine people were killed in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, Clinton promised she would take executive action as president to expand background checks. Sanders, though historically more sympathetic to the gun rights cause, reacted strongly the day after the San Bernardino shooting with a series of tweets calling for universal background checks, closing the “gun show loophole” and renewing the assault weapons ban, among other proposals.

Gun money to 2016 presidential candidates*

Candidate Gun Rights Gun Control
Bush, Jeb (R) $32,065 $6,900
Carson, Ben (R) $168,452 $6,953
Chafee, Lincoln (D) $0 $1,000
Christie, Chris (R) $7,050 $1,000
Clinton, Hillary (D) $48,013 $1,100,698
Cruz, Ted (R) $518,272 $2,566
Fiorina, Carly (R) $73,192 $500
Gilmore, Jim (R) $16,950 $0
Graham, Lindsey (R) $95,366 $0
Huckabee, Mike (R) $52,051 $0
Jindal, Bobby (R) $13,200 $0
Johnson, Gary (3) $10,305 $2,000
Kasich, John (R) $36,740 $9,741
Lessig, Lawrence (D) $0 $637
McMullin, Evan (I) $0 $0
O’Malley, Martin (D) $2,000 $5,740
Pataki, George (R) $0 $0
Paul, Rand (R) $243,502 $0
Perry, Rick (R) $48,550 $0
Rubio, Marco (R) $251,729 $3,950
Sanders, Bernie (D) $14,392 $117,965
Santorum, Rick (R) $121,792 $0
Stein, Jill (3) $260 $2,000
Trump, Donald (R) $969,138 $1,984
Walker, Scott (R) $39,510 $0
Webb, Jim (D) $500 $2,000
*Career numbers not including any funds raised for state-level campaigns. Based on data released by the FEC as of May 16, 2017

Those measures would likely pass muster with the Supreme Court despite challenges that would surely follow based on the Second Amendment — “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” In 2008, the justices struck down Washington, D.C.’s blanket ban on handgun ownership. The decision confirmed that individuals, and not just the police and military, have a constitutional right to own guns, but the ruling was a narrow one, applying only to a person’s right to keep a gun at home for self-defense. It didn’t imply that guns can’t be regulated in a number of ways.

Still, despite highly publicized mass shootings, no gun control measures have made it through the House and Senate in recent years.

That includes the so-called Manchin-Toomey amendment to require background checks in all commercial gun sales, including those at gun shows. The measure first buy metronidazole 500mg came to a vote in April 2013, four months after the Newtown shooting. It failed, getting only 54 of the 60 votes it needed to overcome a filibuster. The Center for Responsive Politics found that nearly all of the 46 senators who voted against the amendment had accepted significant campaign contributions from the political action committees of gun rights groups. There were exceptions to the rule, notably the measure’s sponsors, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). But in general, the correlation was a close one.

No senators who were in office for the 2013 vote changed their position when the provision was brought up again after the San Bernardino killings in 2015. And the second time around only 48 votes of support for expanding background checks could be found. Another bill put to a vote that day, which was sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and would have prohibited individuals on the terrorism watch list from buying guns, was rejected as well.

The votes on Manchin-Toomey seem out of step with where the public stands. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that 85 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republican respondents, support expanding background checks to include private firearms sales and purchases at gun shows. In June 2017, Pew found that 84 percent of Americans supported it.

Reflecting the opinion of many liberal political leaders, commentators and organizations, Feinstein said in a statement that Congress “has a problem — a debilitating fear of upsetting the gun lobby.”

Guns and money

There’s no denying that much of the strength of the leading gun rights organization, the National Rifle Association, comes from its broad and passionate membership base and its mastery of grassroots politics.

But if lawmakers seem to tiptoe around gun issues, it’s likely at least in part because the NRA and other gun rights groups are loaded for bear with a seemingly limitless stash of cash ammunition.

Gun rights interests have given about $41.9 million to candidates, parties and outside spending groups since 1989, with 89 percent of the funds contributed to candidates and parties going to Republicans. And in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, they let loose another $48 million (at least) in outside spending.

Top 20 recipients of funds from gun rights interests, 1989-2018*

Member Party Office State Total From Gun Rights Outside Spending
Gun Control Opposed
Outside Spending
Gun Rights Support
Ryan, Paul R H WI $346,497 $0 $601
Young, Don R H AK $217,976 $0 $138,853
Johnson, Ron R S WI $189,498 $20,493 $1,044,306
Cornyn, John R S TX $189,325 $0 $35,745
Thune, John R S SD $183,215 $0 $578,381
Toomey, Pat R S PA $168,260 $0 $950,835
Paul, Rand R S KY $165,976 $0 $99,955
Sessions, Pete R H TX $159,476 $0 $3,411
Rubio, Marco R S FL $158,194 $0 $1,008,030
Blunt, Roy R S MO $153,543 $0 $1,406,256
Calvert, Ken R H CA $144,466 $0 $775
Goodlatte, Bob R H VA $139,850 $0 $21,924
McConnell, Mitch R S KY $135,350 $0 $771,175
Pearce, Steve R H NM $131,750 $0 $75,450
Cruz, Ted R S TX $130,384 $0 $88,918
Burr, Richard R S NC $125,050 $0 $1,404,496
Inhofe, James M R S OK $122,100 $0 $5,258
Grassley, Chuck R S IA $113,430 $0 $266,356
Royce, Ed R H CA $111,120 $0 $80
Heller, Dean R S NV $108,515 $0 $72,311
*Career figures. Last two columns refer to outside spending. 2018 cycle based on data downloaded from the FEC, September 2017. For more information on how we calculate industry totals visit our methodology page

The NRA has provided the lion’s share of the funds, having contributed $22.9 millionsince 1989. During the 2016 election cycle, it further opened its coffers to make $54.3 million in outside expenditures, up from $27 million during the 2014 cycle.

Gun control interests, by comparison, have been a blip on the radar screen. They’ve given $4.2 million since 1989; 96 percent of their contributions to parties and candidates have gone to Democrats.

But they did unleash $8.6 million in outside spending during the 2014 election cycle, nine times as much as they spent during the 2010 and 2012 cycles combined. Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly, was behind $8.2 million of those independent expenditures. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety spent $390,000.

Those figures don’t include $5.6 million in outside spending by Independence USA PAC, a super PAC backed by Bloomberg that he says supports “candidates and causes that will help protect Americans from the scourge of gun violence, improve our schools, and advance our freedoms.” The money went to support federal candidates who were in favor of gun control and attack one who wasn’t; the group had 100 percent success rate. Bloomberg gave a total of $28 million to outside spending groups during the 2014 cycle, of which $17 million went to Independence USA PAC.

In the 2016 cycle, gun control groups accounted for $3 million in outside spending versus $54.9 million from gun rights organizations, including $54.3 million from the NRA.

Top 20 recipients of funds from gun control interests, 1989-2018*

Member Party Office State Total from Gun Control Outside Spending
Gun Control Support
Outside Spending
Gun Rights Opposed
Van Hollen, Chris D S MDS2 $105,595 $0 $0
Masto, Catherine Cortez D S NVS2 $52,145 $0 $2,422,829
Bennet, Michael F D S COS1 $42,887 $0 $38,813
Schumer, Charles E D S NYS2 $22,864 $0 $0
Stabenow, Debbie D S MIS2 $21,450 $0 $95
Feinstein, Dianne D S CAS2 $19,250 $0 $0
Blumenthal, Richard D S CTS2 $18,165 $0 $55,221
Schiff, Adam D H CA28 $15,435 $0 $0
Price, David D H NC04 $13,350 $0 $0
Nelson, Bill D S FLS1 $11,577 $0 $626,122
Carper, Tom D S DES1 $10,500 $0 $0
Baldwin, Tammy D S WIS1 $9,800 $0 $326,223
Murphy, Stephanie D H FL07 $9,675 $0 $0
Durbin, Dick D S ILS1 $8,783 $0 $0
Murray, Patty D S WAS2 $8,750 $0 $6,704
Gottheimer, Josh D H NJ05 $8,373 $0 $0
Conyers, John Jr D H MI13 $8,218 $0 $0
Larsen, Rick D H WA02 $8,000 $0 $0
Esty, Elizabeth D H CT05 $7,050 $42,123 $0
Takano, Mark D H CA41 $7,000 $0 $0
*Career figures. Last two columns refer to outside spending. 2018 figures based on data downloaded from the FEC, September 2017. For more information on how we calculate industry totals visit our methodology page.

Even greater than gun rights groups’ dominance in the realm of campaign finance is their superiority when it comes to lobbying Congress and federal agencies. In 2013 alone — right after Newtown — the gun rights lobby spent $15.3 million making its case in Washington.

The following year, it spent $12 million, and in 2015 pared it to $11.4 million. The NRA accounted for $3.6 million of the 2015 number, but over the years, other groups — such as the National Association for Gun Rights, Gun Owners of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation — have also made significant lobbying expenditures. And gun control groups? They spent just $1.9 million and under $1.7 million on lobbying in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

In 2016, gun rights advocates spent $10.6 million on lobbying versus $1.7 million by gun control groups.

– Geoff West, updated October 2017