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Can gun control's divided lobby ever match the NRA?

Actor Chris Rock (2nd R) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Actor Chris Rock (2nd R) speaks during a press conference hosted by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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It seems in the wake of each major gun violence tragedy, another new gun control group is formed and the lobby further fragmented.

The phenomenon has some progressives worried their divided efforts will never match both the real and perceived power of the National Rifle Association (NRA). 

UCLA gun policy and politics scholar Adam Winkler said the groups' growth reflects the history of the gun control debate. 

“Part of the reason why there are all these different organizations on the gun control side is in part because there was never one big behemoth,” he said. "There is no doubt the NRA is the 800-pound gorilla in the room" on the gun rights side.

Guest host Patt Morrison spoke with representatives from four significant gun control groups about why they have not coalesced into a single organization and whether that fact affects their work. The panel included representatives from several organizations including:

Interview Highlights

There are myriad groups focused on gun control, gun safety, gun limitations, why is it there are so many of them and they cannot coalesce into a single organization that stands in opposition to the NRA?

Adam Winkler: Some of them are more late arrivals to the party but some of these organizations. For instance, the Brady organization has been around in some way, shape or form now for really half a century. And some of the gun control movement, if you will, can really be traced all the way back to the 1920s when people like Franklin Roosevelt before he was president of the United States was very active in a push for new gun control laws to reduce criminal violence on our streets, so it’s part of a long tradition in much of the same way that the gun rights movement and the NRA is part of a long tradition.

Why do you think there is such a large, single group — the NRA (with a few other groups like Gun Owners of America) — on one side of this, but it’s so fractured on the other side?

Adam Winkler: I think it is fractured somewhat more on the other side, but one of the things that we have to remember that the big difference between gun rights people and gun control people, as a general matter, is that gun rights people are much more cohesive, in part, because they’re united by a hobby, by a lifestyle. They are shooters. They go to range every weekend in the way some people go to the golf course or the tennis court. And they read the same magazines and follow the same Twitter feeds. And they share a culture and an interaction that makes their organization, for political purposes, so much easier than it is for gun control folks who really are just united by a policy position and sometimes because of the unfortunate circumstance of being a victim of gun violence, too. But it’s not the same kind of lifestyle choice that gun rights activists can really count on for political mobilization.

I do think it can affect lobbying. Part of the reason why there are all these different organizations on the gun control side is in part because there was never one big behemoth. There was the Brady organization that was a strong advocate for gun control laws, but they weren’t nearly as big and as powerful as the NRA. [They] didn’t do nearly as much electoral activity, so what we’ve seen is things like Gabrielle Giffords superPAC arising to do a kind of political spending that gun control advocates really weren’t doing very much before that. And so sometimes these different organizations are contributing each in their own way by adding something of value to the gun control movement.

Why is there no behemoth for gun control?

Pia Carusone: I think the gun violence prevention groups work very well together. We’re united on nearly everything. Even in recent history, we’ve seen the gun [rights] groups be divided on a number of topics including the 2013 background checks bill — the Machin-Toomey background checks bill — that came up after the horrible shooting in Sandy Hook. You had the NRA in conversation with some senators on the Hill about the content of the bill, whereas you had the Gun Owners of America sort of claiming the NRA was comprising and they weren’t hard and fast on their “no bill” rule. So those two were in very direct and public competition, which we see play out pretty often.

How similar are your goals?

Pia Carusone: Of the major groups, Americans for Responsible Solutions being one, I’d say we’re all in agreement. To the point that earlier today we were all in discussion about the [Senator Susan] Collins Amendment on the Hill and the contents of the bill. ‘Are we happy with it?’ ‘Are we not?’ [We are] sharing resources with one another [and asking] who has expertise in different areas.

In our case, Americans for Sensible Solutions was put tougher in 2013 and one of the reasons that Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly decided to take this journey is because [of] looking at the political spending on each side, if you will, of this issue. For example, in 2012 you had the NRA spending something around $20 million on their political activity and the combined total in the gun violence prevention world was $20 thousand. So the disparity could not have been more clear.

Wouldn’t there be more money if you combine forces if you didn’t have overheard, different organization, different websites, different boards of directors?

Pia Carusone: I think that’s a very, very small issue. We have different strengths. For example, Gabby and Mark do a lot of communicating with the public. They’re known figures in society – an astronaut and a congresswoman. We focus a lot on messaging and communication. Some of our colleagues focus more on grassroots fundraising. We draw our funding often from different people. So there really isn’t a lot of inefficiency in that regard. I actually think we’re better the way we are. We’re stronger. We have more accessibility to the American public this way. So it’s not a concern we have.

Brian Malte: There was a time in our movement where we weren’t as coordinated; where there was some disparities. Those aren’t here now. I mean every group has things that they need to push and there’s some areas where we disagree, but on the overall policy goals like expanding Brady background checks to all gun sales which 90 percent of Americans support, I think there’s vast agreement on that.

Jennifer Hoppe: The different organizations may be driving in slightly different lanes but we’re all going to the same destination.

I’ve heard it bandied about that we are not as successful as the NRA. The NRA has had a generation of a head start on us. And we have been winning in the states. Six states have closed the private sale loophole requiring background checks on all gun sales since Sandy Hook. We have worked together with other organizations and with our members on the ground to beat back many of the gun lobby’s priority bills. This year in Georgia, we convinced an A-rated NRA governor to veto a bill that would have allowed guns on campus in Georgia. So we are working. We’re working on the ground. We’re working together. We all have the same goal and we all support responsible gun ownership.

Let me ask you from a practical point of view. There’s another group called Sandy Hook Promise that was created in the wake of Newtown, why not join forces? Both of you grew out of the same catastrophe so what is it that would keep you apart, keep you from uniting your energies?

Jennifer Hoppe: We have, as I said, we have come together as Everytown for Gun Safety. We have moms in every state and Sandy Hook Promise does incredibly good work and I would just go back to the fact that we all fill different lanes slightly, but we are all united in our goal to end gun violence in this country and to save lives.

We saw chaos in Congress this week. Who is in charge of triaging this legislation Who says, ‘Let’s bring these bills because we think these bills have the best chance?’

Brian Malte: I think it’s parallel tracks right. You gotta work in Congress and make sure that you’re getting the votes that you need even though it may take a year, or two years, three years. At the same time, you need to work in the states right. You need to work in the states to build momentum so that congress has no choice but to pass legislation.

AirTalk caller Sina in Silver Lake: The problem that we have as gun control advocates against groups such as the NRA is that our message is based on policy, it is very nuanced, it is complicated while the other side can simply walk up to the table and say No and walk off. I think what we can do is we can simplify the message. We can unify and broadcast this simple message.

Question: There is no bumper sticker response. Has that made it difficult in getting actual laws written and passed?

Adam Winkler: Sometimes it can be. Sometimes dealing with gun regulation is often dealing with highly technical issues that are difficult to put onto a bumper sticker. And we’ve seen that with the difficulties in defining, for instance, assault weapons, and defining exactly what kind of weapons these are and what’s the proper way to define this. So these kinds of things can pose a problem. But I do think what we’re seeing in the gun control movement is a lot of consistency and uniformity, a lot of coordination. From what I’ve seen they are highly coordinated and I think they are looking forward to the future and they’ve gotten over many of the hurdles they used to have.

There used to be some of the gun [control] organizations that really did push for civilian disarmament. We don’t see many of the gun control organizations saying anything about that. There may still be some inconsistency on some issues, such as I think there’s disagreement about whether we should be pushing for bans on military style, so called, assault rifles or not, [and] whether that’s going to have much of a public policy purchase or benefit. There’s some dispute about that, but we are seeing a lot of cohesiveness.

AirTalk caller Robert in Orange: I grew up hunting with my family… We still hunt. We still shoot… We used to belong to the NRA. We don’t belong to the NRA anymore because they do not represent our personal beliefs on gun ownership, and their policies are abhorrent to us in a lot of ways. But one of the things that has been prevented us a family from really getting behind the anti-gun movement is first of all that approach: It comes out as anti-gun, not reasonable gun control…. [T]he message from all of the different groups is so scattered that we really don’t know what that side of the aisle, so to speak, really has in mind as far as policies. And until they unite and put forward a decent understandable policy for us, we really can’t get behind and support them either.


Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA; author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).

Pia Carusone, Executive Director, Americans for Responsible Solutions founded in 2013 after the 2011 Tucson shooting of then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others; and a collaboration with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which was founded after a 1993 massacre in San Francisco

Brian Malte, Senior National Policy Director, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Jennifer Hoppe, Deputy Director at Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America which is part of Everytown - Everytown is a collaboration of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America founded after the Newtown massacre

Ladd Everitt, Director of Communications, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence founded in 1974 representing more than 100 organizations