The National Rifle Association (NRA) is well known for using its deep pockets and passionate membership to fight off efforts at gun control, even in the wake of mass shootings. But it’s not the only gun organization spending big money to influence gun policy.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry’s trade association, is taking aim at the 2016 election. The group, which represents gun manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, is investing heavily in its #GunVote voter mobilization campaign, all with an eye towards mobilizing gun owners to elect pro-gun candidates while defeating advocates of gun control.
The NSSF’s 2016 program is being directly underwritten by the industry. At least nine firearms manufacturers and one retailer have officially contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the #GunVote campaign in the 2016 election cycle, committing more than $1.35 million so far.
The president of one of the contributing companies, Hornady Manufacturing, suggested his company was supporting the effort specifically to target Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “For the first time in our nation’s history, we have a Presidential candidate who is openly running against the lawful commerce in firearms, which is a prerequisite to our ability to exercise our Second Amendment rights,” said Stephen Hornady in the NSSF’s press release about his company’s $250,000 contribution.
Smith & Wesson made the largest contribution to the #GunVote campaign, giving $500,000 on August 3rd. The company, which is headquartered in Springfield, MA, said it donated the money in response to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s move to ban the sale of certain assault rifles to civilians. Several gun and gun accessory manufacturers have made six-figure donations to the campaign: Connecticut firearms manufacturer O.F. Mossberg & Sons contributed $150,000 and SIG SAUER contributed $100,000, as did the Beretta Holding Group, Sturm, Ruger & Company, and SilencerCo. Pistol maker Taurus contributed $50,000 while riflescope manufacturer Leupold & Stevens became an Ambassador’s Club level donor, though the company did not reveal the dollar amount of its contribution. Outdoor retailer Gander Mountain has also announced its support for the voter mobilization effort, saying it made “a significant contribution” to the campaign and will feature #GunVote materials in its stores.
NSSF’s #GunVote campaign has focused on former Secretary of State Clinton all year, casting her positions on guns negatively while emphasizing the need for gun owners to vote in November. For instance, in January 2016, the NSSF released a video highlighting Sec. Clinton’s statement that “the Supreme Court is wrong on the 2nd Amendment” and the likelihood that the next president will appoint several Supreme Court justices. After showing footage of Sec. Clinton, the clip declares, “We need a President and Senate who will defend the 2nd Amendment.” Three days later, the NSSF released a similar video consisting of footage of Sec. Clinton praising the idea of appointing President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court, closing with the same message about the White House and the Senate.
In August, #GunVote posted a video on its Facebook page featuring both President Obama’s and Sec. Clinton’s faces juxtaposed with the phrase, “Anti-gun politicians are taking aim at your rights” before encouraging voters to visit gunvote.org to learn more about how to protect gun rights. The video is just one in a series claiming that politicians are “coming after your gun rights” and “want you to sit out of the election.” President Obama and Sec. Clinton are regularly invoked in the videos, which urge viewers to get to the polls to protect gun rights.
Before November, the organization may attempt to intervene more directly in the election. In October 2014, the NSSF broadcast TV and radio ads, promoted as part of the #GunVote campaign, attacking Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). The organization reported spending more than $240,000 on independent expenditures to Connecticut’s campaign finance authorities, but claimed the money was for “issue advocacy voter education” that “neither supports nor opposes a candidate,” even though the TV ad argued that “on Election Day all citizens” should “reject Dannel Malloy’s politics of divisiveness.” It’s unknown how much the NSSF spent on its Colorado ad, which closed by saying, “Maybe it’s time for John Hickenlooper to hit the road.” A spokesman said the ad aired on cable TV in the state, but the NSSF did not report making any independent expenditures or electioneering communications to Colorado’s Secretary of State.
Despite these electorally-focused ad campaigns, the NSSF also did not disclose any political expenditures on its 2014 tax return. In 2014, the NSSF also gave $40,450 to the Republican Governors Association and $15,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association, contributions to political organization that were also not disclosed on the group’s 2014 tax forms.
As a section 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization, the NSSF can legally spend money to influence elections, but politics cannot be the group’s primary purpose and it is required to report to the IRS how much it spends on political activity. The organization is not required to disclose its donors and membership.
#GunVote, which was launched in 2012, is not the only way that the organization participates politically.
Like many other industry groups, the NSSF also has its own political action committee (PAC). The NSSF PAC, which can directly engage in politics and reports its donors to the Federal Election Commission, was established in 2010 and is dedicated to supporting candidates based not on party affiliation, but “on their record of promoting, protecting, and preserving the collective interests of the firearms, ammunition, hunting, and shooting sports industry, our hunting and shooting sports heritage, and firearms freedoms.” Since its inception in April 2010, the NSSF PAC has grown exponentially. In the final six months of the 2010 cycle, the PAC reported $10,600 in contributions and doled out a total of $7,900 to seven House and Senate candidates. In its Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings for the 2012 election cycle, the PAC reported raising $101,697 from 69 major contributors.
By 2014, the PAC had expanded from just congressional races to giving to gubernatorial races, joint fundraising committees, other PACs, and even a local county sheriff race. In the 2014 cycle, according to FEC filings, the PAC saw a massive jump in support, raising $398,606 from over 200 donors. It once again expanded the number of candidates to whom it contributed, donating to 110 congressional committees for a total of $195,500. It also donated $7,000 to three state and local elections and PACs. So far in 2016, the PAC has raised $335,029 and distributed $167,500 to federal candidates.
Lobbying records indicate that the NSSF has spent more than a million dollars each year since 2001 to ward off gun control legislation in Congress, and its lobbying spending has been roughly on par with that of the NRA in recent years. This year so far, the NSSF has reported spending $1.64 million on lobbying. Most recently the group has reported lobbying on a vast number of bills, including the Lawful Purpose and Self Defense Act (HR 2710), the Firearms Manufacturers and Dealers Protection Act (HR 1413/S 477), and many others.
With gun issues taking center stage in 2016, the NSSF is poised to spend more than ever to influence the outcome of the election. If the record–breaking contributions to #GunVote are any indication, the gun-based businesses that make up the group’s membership appear ready to spend as much as necessary to beat pro-gun control candidates at the ballot box.