Gun Rights

Fact Check: Is the NRA Buying Politicians? Did Citizens United Allow That?

The latest school shooting has ignited my Facebook feed with anti-NRA outrage, much of which suggests the “gun lobby” has apparently bought our government by means of their campaign  donations.

From one friend:

Corporations and the Uber-wealthy are strip mining and plundering our society. They have bought the entire political structure via Citizens United and are stealing EVERYTHING…Other countries are able to have functioning governments and constructive political discourse because they limit the influence of money in the political process. We need a separation of money and state just like we need it for religion and state.

This kind of thinking has become so commonplace in political discussions that pushing back against it is almost akin to arguing in favor of Nazis. (“Sure, some people say the Nazis are bad, but shouldn’t we look at the other side?” No. No, we shouldn’t. Nazis are bad. The end.)

That said, I’m going to vigorously push back.

Citizens United didn’t allow corporations to buy politicians

Citizens United, for those of you among the uninitiated, is the Supreme Court decision that determined that individuals and corporations are free to spend as much money as they like to advocate on behalf of candidates and issues they support, so long as those efforts are not coordinated with a specific campaign.

In other words, it restores a semblance of the same political system we had from the dawn of the Republic until 1974, when Watergate spurred a host of campaign finance laws that criminalized various forms of political donations. Actually, what we have is still far more restrictive than that, as, prior to Nixon, campaigns could solicit donations of any size and from any source. The pre-Watergate campaign finance method is the one that gave us all four of the guys on Mt. Rushmore. Sure, there were bumps in the road, but overall, it worked out pretty well.

What people also forget is that the First Amendment was not designed to protect insults or pornography – it was designed to keep the government out of the business of regulating political speech. Citizens United simply says that individuals do not forfeit their right to comment on the political process when they assemble into organizations that speak with a collective voice. If I can say “I Like Ike” as an individual, I can still say it when I’m part of a corporation. Remember, the First Amendment also protects the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Citizens United simply allows people to speak, assemble and petition all at the same time.

The NRA hasn’t bought politicians either

But somehow, the NRA’s donations are more scurrilous than most, and the phrase “bought and paid for” accompanies just about every discussion about those who have gotten money from them. And the reports of how much money they receive are vastly inflated. The New York Daily News, for instance, tweeted that Marco Rubio “has received $3,303,355 [from the NRA] over the course of his career as an elected official,” which is completely bonkersville. Legally, the NRA can only give $10,000 to a candidate per election. For that number to be accurate, Rubio would have had to run for office 330 times, or roughly eight times per year since the day he was born.

But this also raises the question as to why the NRA, if it’s in the business of purchasing politicians, is wasting its time buying up Republicans. Why don’t they blow some of that money on Nancy Pelosi, who received no money from the NRA whatsoever? And on the flip side, wouldn’t NARAL be wise to make a down payment on Rubio, given his staunch opposition to abortion rights?

The reality is that the money follows politicians who already agree with them. And the amount of money, given the current campaign finance legal infrastructure, is relatively paltry. Rubio raised over $21 million for his last Senate reelection campaign, of which a whopping .0005% came from the National Rifle Association. So either his opposition to gun control is based on principles with which the NRA happens to agree, or he’s a really, really cheap date.

The reality is that lobbying organizations only have power insomuch as they have a commensurate amount of public support. Eliminating the NRA and their contributions to candidates wouldn’t nullify the opinions of millions of Americans who agree with its principles, and they would find some other way to influence the debate and support candidates who believe the way they believe. The reason they’re able to support the Second Amendment by means of lobbyists is that we haven’t yet completely gutted the First Amendment.

(Photo of CREDO and concerned citizens attempted to deliver petitions signed by over 235,000 Americans today, calling on the NRA to stand down and stop blocking Congress and the president from passing sensible gun control legislation by Josh Lopez)

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