Following the horrific shooting of innocent civilians at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, many members of the media were quick to point out the National Rifle Association’s heavy-handed influence and how it contributes to the inaction of elected officials on gun-control issues.
It’s no secret that many members of Congress use the gun issue to raise money, but what is rarely reported is that many of these members actually spend campaign money on firearms. In fact, an analysis by CREW using campaign finance data from CQ MoneyLine found that since the beginning of the 2014 election cycle, 13 members of the House and Senate have spent at least $25,526 in campaign funds to purchase guns, ammunition or tickets to gun shows and shooting events.
Why would members of Congress use campaign money to purchase firearms? Well, these members do it for a variety of reasons, but mostly it is a fundraising gimmick. In some cases, the campaigns buy the guns and then give them as gifts to the candidate’s supporters. For example, in June 2013, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) bought $2,230 in “gifts for speaker” from Turnbull Restoration & Manufacturing Company in upstate New York, which sells and restores a wide variety of pistols, handguns, rifles and shotguns.
Candidates also use guns as a feature at campaign events, putting them up for raffles or auctioning them off to bidders. In 2014, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) paid Turnbull $5,060 for “silent auction items” while Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-ME) campaign bought a shotgun from a firearms distributor for $1,055 for a raffle. At the end of last year, Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign made headlines by auctioning off a Remington 12-gauge shotgun engraved with his campaign logo. The campaign reported spending $639 for “donor memento-personalized engraving” at Dawson Precision, Inc., an arms dealer in Florence, TX. In November 2015, Ryan Zinke’s (R-MT) campaign spent $545 at a gun store in Billings, MT for a “fundraising event.” He later sent an email to campaign supporters saying he would give away “a signed AR-15 to one of my strongest supporters.” In December 2013, Rep. Stephen Fincher’s (R-TN) campaign paid $632 to Academy Sports for “Fundraiser Gun Purchase.”
In spring of last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) announced his campaign would raffle off an AR-15 assault rifle that was autographed by rock-star-turned-pundit and NRA board member Ted Nugent. The campaign reported a $1,010 expense at Shooter’s Outlet in Arcadia, IA, which was described as a “raffle item.” According to Rep. King’s Facebook page, a man named Trent, who was described as a Ted Nugent fan, won the AR-15. That fall, Rep. King’s campaign again raffled off a gun – this time a Henry .30/.30 rifle signed by Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum. It also reported spending $1,375 at Shooter’s Outlet on the “raffle item.” While the campaign disavows any and all liability associated with the weapon, the official rules for the events do not mention any requirement for the prize winners to undergo a background check.
In many cases, campaigns report in-kind contributions of firearms they then use to auction off to supporters at events. In September of 2014, for instance, Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-OK) joint fundraising committee accepted $2,269 worth of shotguns and $2,976 of ammunition in in-kind contributions that were both labeled “event expense.” Rep. Jason Smith (R-IL) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) also reported in-kind contributions of firearms that were used for raffles.
Other members hold gun-themed events at shooting ranges or gun clubs. Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL) did not buy guns, but spent $644 of campaign money on a “shooting event” at a trap and skeet shooting range in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) also spent $5,550 at a gun club in Houston, TX for an “event deposit” and “balance for event (range & firearm rentals, ammo).” Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s (R-CA) campaign listed a $291 expenditure described only as “ammo”, though it is unclear if this was in connection to a campaign event.
CREW also found firearms purchases by federal candidates who lost, as well as by state-level politicians and local party committees and PACs not included in the total tally.
Many lesser-known congressional challengers are also using gun giveaways as a tactic to attract attention for their campaigns and obtain e-mail addresses for their fundraising lists. In March 2016, for instance, Tim Neville, a Senate candidate in Colorado, spent $699 at a gun store for a “firearm giveaway” in which he offered the chance to win an AR-15 to anyone who caucused for him. Johnny Tacherra, a House candidate in California’s 16th district, held a “2nd Amendment BBQ” at a gun dealership in which anyone who made the maximum contribution of $2,700 to his campaign received one of two models of Smith & Wesson handguns. The campaign reported paying Full Spectrum Firearms $3,632 for “event prizes.”
These gun giveaways exist at the potentially tricky intersection of gun laws and campaign finance laws. If these politicians are not careful, they could find themselves in legal hot water. For example, some states require anyone transferring a firearm to someone else to conduct a background check before doing so. Some campaigns are cautious and take steps to assure that the weapon is technically given away by a licensed dealer who conducts a criminal background check, but it is unclear if all of these campaigns follow the proper procedures. The campaigns also need to take care not to exceed contribution limits by accepting in-kind contributions of high value while also properly disclosing the purchase of any firearms.
In giving guns away, these politicians are successfully raising money for their campaigns, but they do run a worst-case scenario risk that one of the weapons could fall into the wrong hands and perhaps even be used in a crime or act of violence. Campaigns have gone ahead with using firearms to raise money nonetheless, showing how important and lucrative guns are to them and their campaign coffers.