Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 18-19

Special Report

A Tale of Two Lobbies That Harm America: The NRA and AIPAC

By Delinda C. Hanley

A Tale of Two Lobbies(L) Two daughters of single father Gordon Cowden, killed in the July 20 Aurora, Colorado shooting, embrace on July 23, 2012. Young relatives of Basel Ahmed, killed in an Israeli air strike, mourn at his funeral in Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp, June 22, 2012. (LEFT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; RIGHT: Said Khatib/AFP/GettyImages)

Once again, Americans are in mourning following the tragic mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado after midnight on July 20. The world remembers earlier attacks, including the massacre in Norway which killed 77 people almost exactly a year earlier, the January 2011 shooting which killed six people and wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, and the bloody shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Ft. Hood.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a guest on ABC's TV show "This Week" on July 22, predicted that after the wrenching scenes of grief and eloquent speeches fade, nothing will be done to put in place "reasonable gun control laws." Regulations and restrictions could prevent gun violence, he insisted. "And we talk about this constantly, and absolutely nothing happens," Ramsey lamented, "because many of our legislators, unfortunately, at the federal level, lack the courage to do anything."

While the topic of gun control is discussed in high school classrooms and at kitchen tables across the nation, it is unlikely that presidential or congressional candidates will engage in meaningful discussions on this dicey subject in an election year. So yet another year will pass without putting in place stricter gun control laws, including restricting Internet sales of weapons and ammunition, and banning assault weapons and armor-piercing ammo.

Why would law-abiding Americans, including gun owners and hunters, not welcome reasonable regulations? The short answer is the National Rifle Association (NRA).

When mass shootings trigger calls for new gun control regulations, America's "Gun Lobby"—comprising member organizations including the NRA, Gun Owners of America (GOA) and (who knew?) Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO), as well as the industry which manufactures and distributes guns—gets busy. The most active and visible of these groups is the NRA, an organization that promotes the sport of shooting rifles and pistols in the United States and works tirelessly to halt any government gun regulations.

In the past both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, supported bans on assault weapons, like the ones used in recent mass murders. As Massachusetts governor, Romney actually signed a ban on assault weapons—but after attending the NRA's convention in St. Louis on April 13 and clinching the GOP nomination in May, he began to boast that he is the candidate who will protect gun owners' rights.

While Obama called for reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons during his 2008 presidential campaign, as president he hasn't pushed through any gun control proposals. After every mass shooting, the president just reiterates his support for the Second Amendment and calls for stricter enforcement of gun laws already on the books.

The NRA describes Obama as "anti-gun" despite the fact that the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave him an "F" for his gun record after his election. "Remember the dramatic surge in gun and ammunition sales that immediately followed Obama's election?" Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page asked readers on July 23. "They're surging again, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, as owners fear the weapons won't be available if Obama is re-elected." According to Politico, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) jokingly said of Obama, "He's his own stimulus plan for the gun industry."

In 2001, the NRA displaced the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as Washington's most powerful lobbying group, according to Fortune magazine's top 25 list. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is ranked four, after AARP and the National Federation of Independent Business, and just ahead of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

Of course Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers know where this is going—who could resist comparing the NRA with AIPAC? Both lobbies prosper when their members feel besieged. The NRA thrives on crisis-driven fund-raising appeals to its members, warning the government is trying to take away their guns. Of course, if reasonable gun laws were on the books, there would be no reason for the NRA to exist. Similarly, when Israel is perceived as fighting "existential" dangers, money pours into AIPAC coffers to protect Israel and influence U.S. foreign policy regardless of American national interests. If Israel actually made peace with its Arab neighbors, there would be nothing for AIPAC to do, and donations would dry up.

AIPAC is called "the NRA of foreign policy lobbies," according to <www.busi>, as well as "a hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that took names and kept score." The article, which looks at the 10 top lobbies in Washington, DC, adds: "The almost-unilateral popular support of Israel in America, not to mention the nearly $3 billion in aid the country receives every year, did not come about by accident. It's the result of over 50 years of hard lobbying."

Is it fair to compare the muscle and clout of the NRA and AIPAC? One works to support gun owners resisting gun regulations in the United States. The other labors on behalf of a foreign country, one with a voracious appetite for costly military weapons—preferably American—and land—preferably Palestinian—and a casual disregard for international law. Both lobbies quash public debate—one by labeling any mild criticism of U.S. gun laws a danger to rights guaranteed in our Second Amendment, and the other by charging any criticism of Israel anti-Semitic. Both have cost American lives.

Money Talks

The NRA and AIPAC intimidate legislators by supporting those who toe the line and withholding funds or backing their opponents if they do not. The NRA spends millions of dollars for off-the-books issue ads, messages that advocate or oppose certain political candidates. Its yearly budget is $220 million, while AIPAC's is $70 million—although the latter has an endowment of more than $100 million.

Over the past 20 years, the NRA has contributed more than $17 million to members of Congress. Lawmakers opposing reinstatement of a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons have received more than $240,000 from gun rights organizations, from 1989 to 2012. While AIPAC doesn't contribute directly to members of Congress, the pro-Israel PACs it directs have donated $52,231,254 since 1978 (see May 2012 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 31). Readers can see for themselves on pp. 24-37 what pro-Israel votes were purchased this year by AIPAC. Attendance at NRA and AIPAC conventions is de rigueur for candidates for public office.

Both lobbies can deliver single-issue voters—the NRA claims 4 million dues-paying members and AIPAC more than 100,000 (perhaps because Jewish Americans represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population). The NRA worked out a deal in June 2010 exempting itself from a proposal requiring groups active in political spending to disclose their financial donors. Classified by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a membership organization, AIPAC isn't required to list donors in its public tax filings either. In a 1989 lawsuit, plaintiffs including Ambassador James Akins as well as the publisher and executive editor of this publication urged the FEC to classify AIPAC as a political committee—a designation that would force AIPAC to disclose its membership and file public reports disclosing its receipts and expenditures. In 1998 the Supreme Court decided 6-3 not to rule on the status of AIPAC, and instead sent the case back to the U.S. District Court, which finally dismissed the case in 2010.

Can fed-up Americans stop wringing their hands and actually stop the NRA and AIPAC lobbies? On July 24, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote: "So let's ask ourselves: Aren't we all in danger of being complicit in throwing up our hands and allowing the gun lobby to write our gun laws? Awful things happen, we mourn them, and then we shrug. And that's why they keep happening." 

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, said his group's research shows that politicians can survive an NRA stamp of disapproval more than they think, and that his priority is to convince more politicians that the group is a "paper tiger." According to Gross, "We are behind closed doors with politicians all the time who say they want to do the right thing, but that the gun lobby will ruin them."

After the Aurora murders, victims of the Jan 8, 2011 shootings in Tucson called for "elected officials to take action to fix our nation's broken gun laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands...Some of us are gun owners and hunters ourselves, and we know that this can be done while still protecting the rights of lawful gun owners."

As the above quotes indicate, there is much discussion in America about the gun lobby, and its existence is freely acknowledged. Any mention—much less discussion—of the Israel lobby, however, can immediately result in charges of anti-Semitism. While the situation is improving, the mainstream media continue to ignore the behind-the-scenes workings of the powerful lobby working to advance the interests of a foreign government.

The NRA and AIPAC lobbies represent only the radical fringe of gun owners and Jewish Americans. Many Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers may be just as passionate about their Second Amendment rights as they are about Middle East peace. But surely everyone can agree that assault guns, cluster or suicide bombs and quite a few other lethal weapons have no place on American, Israeli, Palestinian—or any other—streets. People should not fear going to a movie theater, school, cafe or mosque. It's time to call out those legislators who take money from NRA or pro-Israel PACs. Name, blame and shame them. If NRA and AIPAC lose their clout, perhaps Americans can work for peace instead of putting up with incessant violence.

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.