A fatal shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville on Monday left three students and three adults dead and reignited a contentious political debate around gun policy. Following reports that the shooter used legally-obtained AR-style weapons, President Joe Biden once again called for a ban on assault weapons.
But a federal ban is unlikely to pass a divided Congress, in part due to the strong influence of the gun rights lobby. Gun rights groups have recently targeted legislation that would limit access to or ban assault weapons at the state and federal level, arguing such measures infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of Americans.
Gun policy is a politically polarizing issue. Gun rights groups have contributed a total of $15 million to members of the 118th Congress throughout their careers, overwhelmingly to Republicans. All members in the top 20 recipients of political contributions from gun groups – over the course of their career – were Republican.
Top career recipients of political contributions in the 118th Congress from gun control groups, in contrast, are all Democratic lawmakers.
Gun control groups have contributed a total $6.2 million to members of the 118th Congress throughout their careers, less than half the total contributions gun rights groups have made, according to OpenSecrets data.
In an already contentious gun policy debate, “assault weapons” is a controversial term for certain types of automatic and semi-automatic firearms. Unlike automatic firearms that shoot continuously, an AR-15, one of the most popular semi-automatic rifles in the U.S., requires one pull of the trigger per shot.
“This term is not used in the firearms industry, rather, it was crafted by anti-gunners to attach an emotionally charged description to many modern semi-automatic firearms,” Erich Pratt, senior vice president at the “no-compromise gun lobby” group Gun Owners of America, told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
While AR-15-style semi-automatic weapons are civilian versions of military weapons, gun control advocates told NPR they aren’t very different. AR-15s have been used in several high-profile mass shootings, including massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., on December 14, 2012, that killed 20 children and six adults and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two adults on May 24, 2022.
In 2022, gun rights groups took aim at a federal bill to ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of assault weapons including AR-15s, high-capacity magazines and other high-capacity ammunition-feeding devices.
The Assault Weapons Ban of 2022 passed the U.S. House in July but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lobbyists for the three gun rights groups that spent the most money on federal lobbying last year – the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association – disclosed lobbying on the bill during the third quarter.
“This is clearly an unconstitutional attempt to deny people the firearms of their choosing that are better protected by the Constitution,” Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told OpenSecrets in a phone interview. Oliva pointed to the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in which the court ruled a D.C. law that strictly regulated gun ownership was unconstitutional.
In its landmark 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, the Supreme Court held that a state handgun licensing law that required individuals to show proper cause to carry a concealed weapon in public was unconstitutional.
Prominent gun control groups including Everytown for Gun Safety and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported lobbying in support of the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022. After the Nashville shooting, these groups called for gun control measures they say would prevent gun violence.
“What does it say about our country when preschoolers and young children are regularly victims of mass shootings? And what does it say about our political system when our lawmakers know these tragedies are happening every day but refuse to act due to the power and financial influence of the gun industry?” Brady President Kris Brown wrote in a statement issued Monday.
Brady also called for an assault weapons ban in the wake of the Nashville shooting. Congress passed a ban on assault weapons in 1994 as part of a broader crime bill, blocking the sale of certain weapons including semiautomatic rifles and banning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004 following lobbying by gun rights groups.
The rate of assault weapons in crime fell from 5.4% of crime gun traces in 1992-1993 to 1.6% in 2001-2002, a 70% decrease, a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice found. But assault weapons were used in only a small fraction of gun crimes prior to the ban, researchers found, and the ban on guns and magazines yielded mixed results.
The Gun Violence Archive has tracked 10,001 gun violence deaths in 2023 as of Tuesday morning, including 130 mass shootings, which it defines as a shooting where four or more people are shot or killed.
But many gun rights supporters argue assault weapons bans won’t stop mass shootings and would unconstitutionally punish law-abiding gun owners.
“The bans on commonly-owned firearms do not curb crime, and they prevent decent gun owners from protecting themselves. These rifles are some of the most popular and widely owned firearms today, and GOA will continue to fight back against any attempts by government to restrict them,” Pratt told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
At the state level, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Gun Owners of America and the NRA sued to block the recently-enacted Protect Illinois Communities Act. The bill, signed into law by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Jan. 10, banned the sale and distribution of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and switches.
“The law that has been passed in Illinois is clearly unconstitutional. The demand that the President is making for an assault weapons ban is clearly unconstitutional,” Oliva told OpenSecrets.
“Their goal is the DEATH of the Second Amendment – and they will keep chipping away at your rights until you’ve been completely disarmed,” Gun Owners of America wrote in a press release announcing the lawsuit. Gun Owners of America recently asked its members to show up to hearings on proposed legislation that would ban assault weapons in Colorado and Washington.
On Monday, the NRA also urged members to oppose an assault weapons ban in Colorado. The prominent gun rights group has called on supporters to oppose legislation that would ban assault rifles in New Mexico, Virginia and Washington.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation spent $4.9 million on federal lobbying in 2022, more money than any other gun rights group. The firearms industry group disclosed lobbying against the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022 during the third quarter of last year, although federal lobbying disclosures do not disclose the total amount spent lobbying on certain bills or issues.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) reintroduced the Assault Weapons Ban in the U.S. House on February 1, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) reintroduced the bill in the U.S. Senate on January 23. These Democratic senators presented the bills one day after a gunman killed 11 people and injured nine others at a Lunar New Year’s celebration in Monterey Park, Calif.
“Last year, the assault weapons ban passed the House with a bipartisan vote. In 1994, the original ban passed with bipartisan support, there is no reason why we can’t do so again – except for the gun lobby’s strangle hold on certain elected officials,” Cicilline told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
“Politicizing” mass shootings
Hours after the Nashville shooting, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a top recipient of contributions from gun control groups, called on the House Judiciary Committee to cancel a now-postponed hearing Tuesday on a resolution to prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from enforcing a new federal regulation on pistol stabilizing braces.
Gun Owners of America quote tweeted Swalwell’s statement and added its own message: “Stop politicizing acts of violence.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, postponed a markup of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives budget – which included the resolution on pistol stabilizing braces – scheduled for Tuesday.
“Democrats were going to turn this tragic event into a political thing,” Jordan told reporters on Monday. Jordan is a top recipient of contributions from individuals and PACs affiliated with gun rights groups, raking in $128,937 since his first election in 2006.
“Responding to a public safety crisis with policy solutions isn’t politicizing a tragedy – it’s fulfilling one of the most basic responsibilities as elected officials – working responsibly to keep our constituents safe,” Cicilline told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who tweeted that she and her husband were “heartbroken” by the shooting in Nashville, received $139,418 from individuals and PACs affiliated with gun rights groups since her first Senate bid in 1992. The NRA has spent $1.3 million on outside spending boosting Blackburn in federal races through the same period, according to OpenSecrets data.
Blackburn voted against the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act signed into law in June 2022. The bill came in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, breaking decades of partisan gridlock on gun control legislation.
The historical legislation was the result of exhaustive negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was among the lead negotiators on the bipartisan bill, sparking criticism from the gun rights groups that contributed $345,725 to his campaign and leadership PAC since his first U.S. Senate race in 2002.
Although Cornyn told Texas Republicans at a party convention in Houston days before the bill passed that he “fought and kept President Biden’s gun grabbing wish list off the table,” he was booed by the crowd. Texas Republicans are a top target for gun rights lobbying and political contributions, OpenSecrets previously reported.
The top recipient of political contributions from gun control groups was Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.). Giffords survived a mass shooting at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011 that left six people dead and injured 12 others. She stepped down from Congress in 2012 to focus on her recovery and co-founded the gun violence prevention group Giffords in 2013 after Sandy Hook.
While Giffords did not report federal lobbying on the assault weapons ban in 2022, the prominent gun control group urges states to regulate or ban the sale and manufacturing of assault weapons “in the absence of federal legislation.”
“I am devastated and angry. At least three innocent children and three adults lost their lives to another incident of senseless gun violence. Countless people, including young kids, will be left traumatized by this tragedy. No parent, student, or teacher should live in fear of a mass murder at school. Enough is enough. Our leaders need to act,” the former congresswoman said in a statement Monday.
At the state level, Everytown for Gun Safety has supported assault weapons bans, applauding passage of the Protect Illinois Communities Act and advocating for legislation in Washington that would ban assault weapons.
“Schools should be sanctuaries of safety for children, not where they go to die. This should not be our normal,” Everytown for Gun Safety tweeted Monday.