One thing is certain about the gun debate: Americans are willing to spend a lot of money on it. What they get in return is a different story, one that is contoured by the raw emotions, partisan politics and brutal realities of gun violence that make the debate so frustrating and polarizing to begin with.
Major gun control organizations bring in millions of dollars in donations a year, and they typically see a surge in donations and new memberships in the wake of well-publicized tragedies such as the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead.
Everytown for Gun Safety, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun control group that funds Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, brought in $48 million in donations during 2015 fiscal year and easily exceeded $52 million in 2016, according to available tax filings. The well-established Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and its advocacy center in Washington, DC, brought in more than $8 million in 2015.
Instead of peering into the complex legal, social and cultural issues surrounding guns, it's easy to blame the NRA alone.
Pro-gun-control organizations have generally seen an upward trend in donations since the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, survived despite a gunshot wound to the head. The shootings thrust the gun debate back into the headlines, where it re-emerges like clockwork after each mass tragedy. For example, Everytown for Gun Safety's Action Fund, the group's 501(c)4 social welfare arm, saw its revenues balloon from $4.8 million in 2012 to $36 million in 2013.
However, the proceeds generated by pro-gun-control groups are dwarfed by the behemoth National Rifle Association (NRA), which brought in nearly $337 million in revenues during 2015 fiscal year alone, according to the group's IRS filing.
The NRA's status as a well-oiled and wealthy political machine has become a dominant narrative in the gun debate that churns back into the media cycle after each outbreak of gun violence. Why is gun control legislation so hard to pass, despite popular support for reforms and a steady stream of horrific violence, particularly mass shootings?
Instead of peering into the complex legal, social and cultural issues surrounding guns, it's easy to blame the NRA alone. The organization is deeply enmeshed in right-wing politics and routinely opposes any new type of gun control -- regardless of its potential impact -- while undermining state and federal laws already on the books. After every new tragedy, Democrats and gun control proponents call for reform, and the NRA is there to oppose them on the evening news.
Politicians do not respond to the NRA's demands solely because they want the organization's money. They respond because the group is highly effective at mobilizing voters.
However, stemming gun violence is much more complicated than implementing bans, or even preventing mass shootings. The vast majority of gun deaths in the United States are suicides or individual homicides, not the result of mass murders.
"One thing we do very frequently after mass shootings is talk about mass shootings at the exclusion of other kinds of gun violence, and start talking about solutions that make us feel better," said Patrick Blanchfield, an academic and journalist who has written extensively on guns and gun control. "Republicans have their security theater, Democrats have cathartic and righteousness theater, and that prevents the decomposition of gun violence into its different parts."
For gun control groups, mass shootings and the ensuing partisan bickering is a good time to draw attention to their cause and raise money. To put pressure on lawmakers after the Parkland shooting -- and perhaps to highlight the NRA's comparative ability to buy political influence -- Everytown and Moms Demand Action ran a two page ad in the New York Times listing the NRA's contributions to every member of Congress who received them. The ad suggested that the NRA was buying its vast political influence, but like gun violence itself, the politics of gun control are never that simple.
In fact, gun control groups collectively made more direct contributions (about $1.7 million) to candidates during the 2016 election season than the NRA did (about $1.1 million), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (However, while the NRA is a dominant force in the gun lobby, the pro-gun groups and industries generally tend to outspend pro-gun-control groups, at least at the federal level).
Instituting meaningful reforms that will actually stem gun deaths is difficult because gun violence takes different forms in various regions and communities.
The NRA generally outspends individual gun control groups like Everytown when lobbying Congress, but that is not where the group's true power lies. The NRA spends much more money engaging voters with mailers, ads and outreach material than directly influencing lawmakers financially. The NRA spent $3.1 million on lobbying Congress in 2016, but $54 million in independent political expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As the New York Times pointed out not long after running Everytown's two-page ad detailing the NRA's political contributions, politicians do not respond to the NRA's demands solely because they want the organization's money. They respond because the group is highly effective at mobilizing voters for or against them.
Gun control advocates hope the massive response to the latest mass shooting in Florida will finally turn the tides in their favor. Support for stricter gun controls typically rises after mass shootings, but polls taken in the wake of the Parkland massacre show support is now higher than ever before. Even President Trump, who boasted about earning the NRA's blessing early on the campaign trail but often seems more interested in his personal popularity than specific policy positions, suddenly came out in support of several gun reforms this week.
Eric Ruben, a Second Amendment fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Truthout in an interview that if the "intensity gap" between advocacy efforts of gun rights and gun control groups continues to narrow, the country may eventually see changes in legislation after years of political gridlock.
After witnessing a mass shooting, the public often demands blanket solutions as a sort of "catharsis."
"The intensity of the ... advocates on the gun rights side of the equation historically has been greater than on gun control side, but this is something that I think has shifted -- but it's hard to quantify -- since Sandy Hook," Ruben said. "There are more gun safety groups than ever before, they are better funded, and there is more engagement."
So, how are gun control groups wielding the influence they gain after each mass shooting, from Sandy Hook to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas and the tragedy in Parkland?
Consider Everytown's Action Fund, which contributed $39 million in revenue to the broader organization in 2015, according to tax filings. The group spent $2.4 million on political expenditures supporting pro-gun-control candidates and political committees that year, or about 6 percent of its total revenue. During the 2014 midterms, the group spent 11 percent of its total revenue supporting pro-gun-control candidates. Meanwhile, top executives enjoyed salaries ranging from $200,000 to $350,000.
Rep. Giffords established a gun control group in 2014. Giffords PAC, the hybrid political action committee and Super PAC behind Rep. Giffords' gun control group that was formerly known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, has reported that nearly half of its expenditures -- about $1.6 million -- have gone to fundraising during the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. During the 2016 election season, Giffords PAC spent 40 percent of expenditures on fundraising and about a quarter on media campaigns. Only 9 percent went to pro-gun-control candidates.
There is a clear trend here. Groups on both sides of the gun debate spend more money on building a political base and gathering donations than directly supporting lawmakers, politicians or even ballot measures. Blanchfield suggested this is not just because partisan gridlock has made lawmakers less than useful to advocates. Instituting meaningful reforms that will actually stem gun deaths is difficult because gun violence takes different forms in various regions and communities and is spurred by a whole host of issues ranging from poverty to domestic violence to unemployment to policing.
"The problem of gun violence, like most violence in this country, is actually a really multifactorial problem," Blanchfield said. "Gun violence as an aggregate concept brings together a whole different set of community-based vulnerabilities and types of violence."
After witnessing a mass shooting, the public often demands blanket solutions as a sort of "catharsis," as Blanchfield puts it. However, factors contributing to gun violence in low-income urban neighborhoods, for example, are much different from those surrounding the horrors witnessed at a suburban high school in Florida, where a troubled teenager had access to powerful weapons. Blanchfield said gun controls designed to prevent a Parkland-style shooting could have totally different impacts in a different community, particularly if the people there are already unfairly targeted by police. Blanket measures to "control" guns could, in marginalized communities, result in more criminalization and incarceration.
"When these specimen acts of horror happen, and we essentially want catharsis, we want to do something that is sufficiently emotionally vindicating or righteous in response to the horror we justifiably feel," Blanchfield said. "Unfortunately, multiple targeted interventions for different communities is not sexy and it's not cathartic."
This explains why the public is so often disappointed by the lack of progress elected leaders make in stemming gun violence -- and why Democrats and gun control advocates so often fall back on regressive reforms that rely on the punitive criminal legal system, rather than a real cultural shift toward disarming our society.