Gun control advocates have more money now, but money can’t buy enthusiasm

After the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the gun control movement was small, and the National Rifle Association outspent it. Parents seeking an outlet for their pain and anger flocked to Facebook, where they formed their own group, Moms Demand Action, to push for tougher gun laws.

By far the biggest and best-known donor in the years since has been Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and former mayor of New York City. In 2013, your mayors’ initiative merged with Moms Demand Action to create Everytown for Gun Safety, the closest thing the gun control movement has to a counterweight to the NRA. That year, the group spent $36.5 million, compared to $4.7 million the year before. .

More groups have sprung up, including Giffords, started in 2013 by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that claimed the lives of six people, and the March for Our Lives, founded by survivors of the shooting. at the 2018 school in Parkland, Florida.

As recent progress on a bipartisan gun safety agreement on Capitol Hill illustrates, the nascent movement has coalesced into something more formidable. It has gone from being considered a guaranteed loss issue for Democrats to something that candidates organize around, especially at the state level. But because gun control was seen as particularly divisive, many major philanthropists and big foundations have been reluctant to dive into an issue long seen as not only polarizing but intractable.

However, as gun sales and gun deaths have risen in tandem, and the number of mass shootings continues to rise, including last month’s attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, big donors have begun to leave sideways.

“Since Buffalo, I’ve spoken to a dozen major funders who are quickly scrambling to figure out where they can play a role in the current gun violence crisis,” said David Brotherton, vice president of the Fund for a Safer Future, the nation’s largest donor. collaborative work on gun violence prevention, and a program officer at the Atlanta philanthropy, the Kendeda Fund. “This is snowballing right now.”

In addition to moments of crisis, people were trying to make progress where the potential political heat was lowest. Increasing funders have tried to address gun violence through the less politically divisive lens of public health, through community intervention, and as an issue of racial equity. Big-name philanthropists like Steve and Connie Ballmer of the Ballmer Group and John and Laura Arnold of Arnold Ventures have begun winning tens of millions of dollars in grants for different aspects of gun violence prevention.

The gun control movement is better funded than it was a decade ago, but it still doesn’t outspend the NRA Even with recent legal challenges and boardroom battles, the NRA remains a powerful organization with years of success in the blocking legislative efforts to restrict arms sales. .

It remains to be seen how the bipartisan deal for a limited set of gun safety measures, an agreement reached by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats and backed by President Biden, will advance through the evenly divided Senate.

Money is also only part of the equation. More donors will help the gun control movement spend on lobbying, research and organizing, and donations to political candidates who support the cause. But matching the intensity and discipline of political activism of gun rights supporters isn’t just about who spends the most.

Gun rights are an especially motivating issue for many Republican voters, particularly in the primaries, and Republicans are far more likely to use gun messaging to excite their base than Democrats for most of this year, though some they are working more and more on gun safety. your releases now.

“It’s a much heavier lift than everyone thinks because by attacking this gun issue, you’re taking on the whole identity and spirit of the Republican Party,” said Ryan Busse, a former Kimber gun company executive who is now a industry critic. .

Richard Feldman, the NRA’s former regional political director, said the gun control movement might be better organized and funded than in the past, but that the politics of the issue still heavily favored gun rights.

“Everyone has an opinion on guns, but in November, it’s the defining issue for gun owners,” Feldman said.

It is that force of sentiment that helped keep donors away. Liz Dunning, vice president of development for the Brady gun control group, worked at educational nonprofits and philanthropies before switching to gun control. “I know what it looks like when really big philanthropic players get involved, and it looks different than this,” she said.

“What if Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the Ford Foundation got together and said, ‘We’re not going to live this way anymore and we’re going to use the resources we have right now to make a difference’?” asked Mrs. Dunning, whose mother was shot to death.

But the decade of activism since Sandy Hook has laid the groundwork for change. And the overwhelming rise in gun violence, not only in high-profile mass shootings but also in domestic violence and suicides, has steadily added to the ranks of small donors and volunteer lists.

According to legislation tracked by the Giffords group, since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, 48 states and the District of Columbia have passed more than 466 gun laws. That includes 22 states that have closed the federal loophole that exempted unlicensed dealers from conducting background checks on some or all firearms buyers.

“In some cases, Congress opens the curtain and, in others, it is the end. And the truth is, I think it’s going to be the end here,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, when asked about the political will in Washington before the bipartisan gun safety agreement was announced. “But if you look at the state-by-state action, which happened on a bipartisan basis, it shows a pretty remarkable shift in the political calculus.”

The face of the gun control movement in the 1980s was James Brady, the White House press secretary who was seriously injured and permanently disabled when he was shot in 1981 during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. In 1994, Congress passed an assault weapons ban. After Democrats lost control of the House the same year, many Democrats viewed guns as a lost issue.

“You had all these centrists in the ’90s who thought guns were the third rail. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t talk about it. Since Newtown, the consensus has changed,” said Alex Barrio, advocacy director for gun violence prevention policy at the Center for American Progress.

The advent of online organizing helped reduce the NRA’s fundraising advantage. “The ease and rise of online portals has made a huge difference. In the past, you had to address the mail, which is a very expensive way to raise money,” said Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

But the NRA still outspent gun violence prevention groups on lobbying in Washington with a record $15.8 million in 2021, a factor of five to one, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in the politics.

“It is indisputable that gun rights continue to outspend gun control at least nationally,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets. “The gap is certainly closing.”

In 2019, tax records show, the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund raised a record $80.7 million in contributions and grants. That year, Mr. Bloomberg announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was also the most generous to date as a philanthropist. His total donation skyrocketed to $3.3 billion from $767 million the year before. According to the group, Mr. Bloomberg gave an additional $35 million at the end of 2019 that was earmarked for the following year.

Without a major gift from Mr. Bloomberg, the Action Fund raised just $20.3 million in 2020 and was $32 million short. A Bloomberg spokesman declined to comment on the timing of his donations to Everytown. Whether it was related to a personal tax bill, his run for president, or something else, the organization’s expenses were ultimately unaffected. The fluctuation underscores the potential impact of relying too much on one benefactor, said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor specializing in nonprofit organizations at The Ohio State University.

“Given the dependency on one donor, the big open question for me is what is the plan for the future,” Mr. Mittendorf said. “Will there be an effort to diversify the revenue stream?”

That would mean more people pouring real money into gun violence prevention, which remains a tough sell overall.

Donors associated with the effective altruism movement, which tries to find the most cost-effective strategies to save or improve lives, view gun control as costly compared to interventions like bed nets to protect against malaria or vaccines to prevent childhood diseases.

Ms. Dunning, from Brady, pointed to the politics of the issue and the fear among foundations of addressing something they see as polarizing. “In my conversations with smaller foundations, I’ve heard from program officers and others, ‘It’s not one of our strategic priorities.’ ‘Investing in gun violence prevention makes us nervous,’” she said.

Since the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, “I’ve been getting calls from major donors, new donors that I’ve never heard of before,” he added, which could herald a greater role for philanthropy in gun violence prevention.

Laurene Powell Jobs’ organization, the Emerson Collective, began donating to gun violence prevention groups a decade ago, most notably through the nonprofit Chicago CRED. Emerson gives $25 million a year to the group, which reaches directly to city youth who are at risk of being shot or shot.

This year, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, announced more than $20 million in grants to groups working to reduce gun violence in the community.

Arnold Ventures, the philanthropic arm of billionaires John and Laura Arnold, began working on gun violence prevention in 2018, the year of the Parkland shooting. He made a $20 million donation to start the National Gun Violence Research Collaborative to try to get data to shape good policy. In 2020, Arnold Ventures also began working on community violence reduction strategies with an additional $5 million. This month, the group published a new request for proposals for additional research grants.

“Much more needs to be done,” Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, said in an interview. “There is much work to be done”.

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