Spotlight on: Guns and Campaign Money
The national debate on regulation of guns in America has reignited in Washington, DC recently. According to polls conducted for years by Gallup, Americans have long been divided on whether or not gun regulations should be made more strict.
While general questions about gun regulations tend to show a divide in America, some specific policies are widely supported. For example, Gallup found last October that 86% of Americans favor universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. using a centralized database across all 50 states. Other polls have found similarly high support for universal background checks over the past several years. (Under current law, background checks are required for sales by federally licensed gun dealers. However, background checks are not required for gun sales by private sellers.)
Despite this broad support, votes to require universal background checks have repeatedly failed in Congress over the past few years. (To be clear, CleanSlateNow.org does not have a position as an organization on the regulation of guns).
As one can easily imagine, millions of dollars have been spent in the last few years by groups on both sides of the debate over universal background checks and other changes to the law.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, groups favoring new and stricter gun safety regulations have spent an average of $1.9 million dollars a year over the last several years on lobbying Members of Congress. Those opposing new regulations have spent an average of $12.9 million dollars a year.
Groups have not limited themselves to lobbying, though, as Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show significant campaign spending by both sides, including through political action committee (PAC) contributions to candidates, as well as independent expenditures by Super PACs and Dark Money spending. (For a detailed explanation of PACs, Super PACs, and Dark Money, please see the note at the bottom of this message).
Pro-Gun Safety Regulation Groups
Among pro-gun safety regulation groups, virtually all recent campaign spending and fundraising have come through independent expenditures by just two groups. A Super PAC affiliated with the organization Americans for Responsible Solutions has raised $8.8 million dollars in the current election cycle and raised over $21 million dollars in the 2014 election cycle. Just over half of their contributions were from small donors who gave $250 or less in the election cycle.
The organization Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund supplemented that spending in 2014 election cycle with $334,000 of Dark Money spending. They are not required to disclose their donors who paid for this spending, though billionaire Michael Bloomberg has been quite public of the years about providing financial support to the organization.
According to FEC reports, there has been no pro-regulation PAC that has donated to candidates for Congress in recent years.
Anti-Gun Regulation Groups
Several groups that oppose additional regulation of guns in America have raised significant sums of money to support their preferred candidates. The National Rifle Association alone spent over $15 million dollars in the 2014 election cycle, including nearly $1 million in direct contributions to candidates through their PAC and more than $14 million dollars on independent expenditures to help their favored candidates. Complementing the NRA’s efforts, six other anti-gun regulation PACs raised a combined $1.2 million to encourage candidates to oppose gun safety regulations.
Of the PAC money raised by these groups, the vast majority (89%) of their funding in the last election cycle came from small contributors who gave less than $250 per election cycle. In addition to this spending, the organization’s affiliated “Institute for Legislative Action” spent another $12 million in Dark Money. The original source of these funds is unknown.
Our research reveals two key findings regarding groups involved in the debate over gun regulations in America:
1) The NRA and other groups that oppose gun regulations provide far more financial support for candidates who vote their way than do pro-regulation groups; and
2) Groups that favor gun regulation rely heavily on Super PACs and Dark Money while providing no PAC money for candidates who vote their way.
Given this tremendous imbalance in campaign funds favoring candidates who oppose stricter regulation of guns, it is not especially surprising that Congress has not passed legislation requiring universal background checks. Voters may favor background checks by better than an 8 to 1 ratio, but campaign funders oppose them by 3 to 1.
Explanation of PACs, Super PACs, and Dark Money
Special interest money comes in three mains forms – contributions from Political Action Committees (PACs) or independent expenditures by Super PACs or as “Dark Money.” An independent expenditure is spending to support or oppose a candidate that is not controlled by or coordinated with any candidate campaign.
PACs: At the federal level, PACs raise money from individuals and donate it directly to candidates’ campaign committees. Federal law limits the amount any one person can give to a PAC to $5,000 per year and how much a PAC can donate to a candidate to $5,000 per election (a “primary election” counts as a separate election from the general election, so PACs can donate $10,000 to a candidate committee in an election cycle).
PACs are required to disclose information about anyone who gives them at least $250 and how they spend that money (including which candidates receive their donations).
Super PACs do not face the same limits as traditional PACs, as they can accept money from individuals, corporations, unions, and just about any other entity from the United States, including other PACs, Super PACs, and Dark Money groups.
Super PACs are required to disclose information about anyone who gives them at least $250 and how they spend that money (including which candidates receive their donations).
Like Super PACs, Dark Money spending is not limited in source or amount. Any individual or organization can donate unlimited amounts to Dark Money spending groups. These groups can take a variety of forms, from 501c4 corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Corporations, for-profit corporations, individuals, and nearly any other legal entity.
The only disclosure requirement on Dark Money spending is that money spent for or against a candidate must be disclosed, but the source of those funds does not have to be disclosed.