The National Rifle Association, under heavy fire on social media following the Parkland, Fla., school massacre, has spent more than $210,000 to support members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation over the past two decades, campaign finance records show.
The money, doled out as campaign contributions directly to candidates, is just a small piece of the pie in the post-Citizens United world where super PACs representing corporations, nonprofit organizations and labor unions can spend millions more to underwrite independent, issue-oriented communications to support their favorites.
Gun control advocates, who often are outspent by as much as 10-1 on the national stage, say it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the NRA and other gun rights groups.
“It’s hard to track all of the money because it doesn’t go directly to the candidates. And then the NRA can always threaten to back a primary candidate against members who step out of line,” said Shira Goodman of CeaseFirePA.org.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks money in federal elections, totaled contributions from various gun rights organizations and super PACS that support their work and found gun rights groups outspent gun control groups by $54,874,552 to $2,950,801 in 2016.
The NRA, the nation’s leading gun rights advocate, did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday. The organization typically urges restraint in Washington when calls for gun control escalate after mass shootings.
But the tide may be turning.
Even as gun rights money continued to flow to Washington on Thursday, #GunControlNow was trending on Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets calling for action. And Facebook postings were naming names and asking why members of Congress are still taking money from gun rights groups.
Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Republican Patrick Toomey, is among those who sampled the water for change in 2013 after the Sandy Hook massacre when he and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sponsored the unsuccessful Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks on gun transactions to internet and gun shows.
Toomey, who served in the House from 1999-2005 prior to his 2010 election to the Senate, reaped nearly $40,000 in NRA contributions between 1998 and 2010. He has not received anything from the organization since then.
I am committed to improving our federal background check system, which is why my staff and I will continue to reach out to senators on both sides of the aisle to see where progress can be made.
— Senator Pat Toomey (@SenToomey) February 15, 2018
Asked about his views on gun legislation yesterday, Toomey said he hasn’t given up on it.
“I am committed to improving our federal background check system, which is why my staff and I will continue to reach out to senators on both sides of the aisle to see where progress can be made. I am also open to new legislation establishing stricter penalties for people who steal or illegally possess firearms,” he wrote in an email.
Five of six Pennsylvania congressmen who are leaving office — Republicans Charlie Dent, Bill Shuster, Patrick Meehan, Lou Barletta and Tim Murphy — all received direct contributions from the NRA.
The organization already has endorsed Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, a state lawmaker seeking to succeed Murphy. But it was unclear whether he had received any direct contributions from the organization.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who is seeking a ninth term this year, is among those who have never received the NRA’s backing. In 2016, Doyle led a sit-in on the House floor, calling for a vote that would ban anyone on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a gun.
On Thursday, a frustrated Doyle tweeted:
“What’s it going to take? No more moments of silence. Action.”
What’s it going to take? No more moments of silence. Action.
— Mike Doyle (@USRepMikeDoyle) February 15, 2018
Like Doyle, Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey, has never profited from the NRA’s largesse as a senator. Today, gun control advocates have a kindred spirit in Casey, who became an ardent supporter of gun control legislation after the Sandy Hook massacre.
In the wake of yet another school shooting, the 18th of this year, we should pray for the victims and their families but those of us in public office are obligated to act to reduce gun violence.
— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) February 15, 2018
Back at the offices of CeaseFirePA, Goodman said the phones have been ringing nonstop since word of the Parkland School shootings broke Wednesday.
“We’re getting calls for people who are horrified, people who we’ve never heard from before are calling. They want to know what they should be doing and who they should be calling. ‘Eighteen shootings on schools grounds by Feb. 14 is outrageous,’ that’s what we’re hearing,” Goodman said.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.