Politics & Government

The gun lobby and the North Carolina legislature: How much money, how much influence?

Two gun regulation bills filed by Democrats early in North Carolina’s legislative session never made it out of committee. Now, as the session comes to a close, the attention that had been focused on those bills also is dwindling.

That wasn’t the case in August at a news conference following several mass shootings across the country. State Rep. Christy Clark, a Huntersville Democrat, asked her fellow lawmakers to at least debate proposed gun bills.

“Make a choice. Do you side with [gun violence victims] or do you side with the gun lobby?” Clark asked.

Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat, said she hoped Republicans had the “courage to do what is morally correct,” and move the legislation forward to a floor vote in the House.

Two months after Clark and Butler called for change, those who want stricter gun laws continue to blame the “gun lobby,” especially the National Rifle Association, for the lack of new laws.

The NRA spends millions of dollars every year to influence Congress, primarily Republicans, and lobbies for loose gun laws. But what about at the state level? The News & Observer researched campaign finance reports to find out how much influence the NRA has in the legislature.


Why we wrote this story

After a weekend of mass shootings this summer, Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly renewed their call for gun regulation legislation. The phrase “gun lobby” was used by them as well as readers of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, who submitted their concerns about gun laws after reading our coverage of the gun regulation bills.

“Are We Safe?” is the name of a journalism engagement project in the newsroom in which our reporting is partly driven by answering questions raised by readers about their safety concerns. Some readers who want stricter gun laws said lawmakers who vote against those laws are listening to the “gun lobby.”

Here are a few of the questions we received:

“With all the mass shootings in the past couple of years, it doesn’t feel safe to attend any group setting. Why don’t our legislators put their constituents interests and safety above the interests of the NRA and vote to prohibit ownership of assault weapons by ordinary citizens?” asked Evelyn Barrett.

“Why exactly are Republicans adverse to HB 454, a very common sense part of the solution? Is it because they fear the loss of their precious gun-lobby donations?” asked Melvin Knuth.

Other questions and concerns submitted dealt with the status of gun laws in the General Assembly and other factors in how to prevent mass shootings.

We searched through campaign finance records to find out how much money the National Rifle Association has actually been giving to North Carolina lawmakers, and how else they might influence campaigns.

Measuring influence by dollars may not be the point.

“Liberals continue to push this false narrative that money from gun lobbyist groups is one of the main driving forces for Republican candidates, but the reality is North Carolina is a state where many people feel very strongly about their right to bear arms, and vote for Republicans who will protect that right,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement emailed to The News & Observer.

Republican state lawmakers, unlike Democrats, do not necessarily see gun regulation as the best response to mass shootings. And they view the Second Amendment differently than Democrats, who generally support stricter gun laws.

“It’s that simple and it’s also understood by North Carolina’s voters that Democrats are intent on advancing policies that violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners. As elected officials, it’s our duty to protect the constitutionally provided rights of our citizens,” Berger said.

Clark said that gun legislation like extreme risk protection orders should be a nonpartisan issue and could save lives.

So, how much is the NRA giving state lawmakers?

While the NRA may have President Donald Trump’s ear, its money flowing into North Carolina campaign coffers is much less than other groups.

In the 2018 election year, Berger received $2,600 from the NRA, as did House Speaker Tim Moore, according to state Board of Elections campaign finance reports and data from the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

Not all legislative Republican leaders reported donations from the NRA. Among those who didn’t is Rep. Jason Saine, also a leading House Republican. Corporations’ political action committees and many North Carolina groups and individuals not associated with gun issues actually give far more money to state lawmakers than the NRA gives, according to campaign finance reports.

Moore’s campaign reported bringing in $311,500 in the first six months of 2019. Most came from political action committees, including $5,200 from Blue Cross Blue Shield; and individual donors like Raleigh developer John Kane of Kane Realty Corp., who gave $5,400.

From 2017 through the first half of 2019, the NRA gave $14,800 total to all North Carolina lawmakers.

What is Grass Roots NC?

A statewide gun rights group known as Grass Roots NC is a statewide gun rights group that has donated much smaller amounts to state lawmakers.

Grass Roots NC Forum for Firearm Education has not donated any money to campaigns in 2019 as of June 30, according to its filing with the State Board of Elections.

In 2018, Grass Roots NC reported no donations in the first half of the year, a $500 donation to the campaign of Rep. Larry Pittman in the third quarter and another $500 in the fourth quarter that did not name the recipient. In 2017, Grass Roots reported no donations.

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots NC, said it’s run by volunteers aside from office staff and he does not consider Grass Roots to be the “gun lobby.” He said it has a legislative action team and sends email alerts about gun issues.

Valone said Democratic state lawmakers who wanted to revive stalled bills after mass shootings “are simply exploiting tragedy, as the gun control movement always does.”

Who gets the most NRA money in Congress?

The federal level of lobbying is a different ballgame. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis, both of North Carolina, were among the top five beneficiaries in Congress of money from the NRA, The News & Observer previously reported. NRA groups had spent nearly $7 million on behalf of Burr as of early 2018, and $4.5 million on behalf of Tillis, with much of it used to campaign against their opponents.

Who has the NRA endorsed in NC?

NRA money isn’t only spent on campaign donations. It also pays for endorsement activities.

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action spent $13,000 on endorsement postcards and phone calls for Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign for a second term as governor, according to an October 2016 state Board of Elections report. McCrory lost to current Gov. Roy Cooper.

The NRA made endorsements in the 2016 election for McCrory as well as three other Republican North Carolinians running for statewide office — current Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, current state Treasurer Dale Folwell and Buck Newton, who lost the attorney general race to Democrat Josh Stein. The endorsement called them “strong, pro-Second Amendment candidates who will stand up for the rights of law-abiding North Carolinians.”

Does the NRA donate to Democrats, too?

Going back several years, the NRA also gave money to Democrats, though far fewer candidates. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, received $2,000 from the NRA in 2004, when he was attorney general, and $500 from the NRA in 1996, according to reports from the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

There are no recent reported NRA donations to Democrats in office.

Cooper’s office responded to a request for comment about the prior donations with an emailed statement from spokesman Ford Porter.

“The Governor believes in responsible gun ownership and that extreme positions like opposition to background checks are harmful to public safety,” Porter said in the statement.

What do North Carolinians think about gun laws?

According to Gallup, a majority of Americans have supported stricter laws on firearms sales since 2015. Gallup’s poll in August also show a majority of Americans — 61% — support a ban when asked about “semi-automatic guns, known as assault rifles.”

The Civitas Institute, a conservative policy group in North Carolina, shows similar results in its own poll. Civitas’ poll results showed 58% of respondents saying the laws were not strong enough. Civitas also asked if people believe stricter gun laws would have prevented recent mass shootings, and just under half — 48% — did not believe they would have.

The Gallup poll also asked people’s opinions overall of the NRA. It was split almost in half, with 48% saying they have a favorable view and 49% saying they have an unfavorable view.

Where are the gun bills in NC?

Clark, one of the Democrats leading recent stricter gun law legislation, was the volunteer leader of North Carolina Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America before running for office and winning in the fall of 2018.

Clark is a primary sponsor of House Bill 86, which was filed this legislative session but never made it out of committee.

HB 86 would, among other things, require a permit to purchase long guns. Right now, North Carolina law requires a permit only for pistols.

It would also require a 72-hour waiting period for firearm purchases, prohibit sales or possession of bump stocks, require safe storage of guns, require lost or stolen guns be reported and require gun owners to carry firearm liability insurance. In North Carolina, there is no waiting period to buy a handgun if you already have a pistol purchase permit.

Drew Pescaro, a survivor of the mass shooting at UNC Charlotte in April, stands for a portrait outside the North Carolina Legislative Building displaying his scar left by multiple surgeries for injuries caused by a bullet that entered his back one inch away from his spine, after speaking during a press conference with legislators on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. NC House Democrats announced they are working to move two gun reform bills to a floor vote. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former judge, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 454, which she describes as a “red flag” bill. It would allow family members or law enforcement to petition a judge for what is known as an extreme risk protection order, which would restrict a person’s access to firearms if there was evidence of them posing danger to themselves or others.

Despite the renewed calls from Morey, Clark, Cooper and other Democrats to take up the legislation, Republican leaders did not move them out of committee.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, told reporters in August that Republicans may be willing to discuss extreme risk protection orders but have concerns about due process. Lewis said there are existing laws that require background checks. Federal law requires background checks on sales by licensed dealers, and North Carolina law requires them on private sales of pistols.

Morey said she has talked with half a dozen Republicans about the extreme risk protection order bill, but those discussions have yet to lead anywhere. She is optimistic that protection orders will come up again.

Are Democrats targeted by gun groups?

When Morey introduced an extreme risk protection order bill in 2018 it got a lot of attention, including from people who sent her harassing and threatening emails and voice mails, she said. So much so she told the General Assembly Police Department, which looked into at least two of the people who contacted her. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office sent an officer to drive by her house, Morey said.

A photo of her as a judge was posted on a pro-guns website, which resulted in Morey getting several nasty emails from within the state, and threatening ones from mostly out of state, she said. She said it was intense and unnerving, but it didn’t change her policy position.

“I know that certainly doesn’t deter me or Rep. Clark or Rep. [Pricey] Harrison from doing what we think is the right thing,” Morey said. “I know many in our caucus are proud to say they wouldn’t accept any money from gun lobbying groups.”

Morey said that both sides of the political aisle can come together to pass common sense gun safety legislation.

“I think the NRA has been one of the most powerful lobbyists in the country. For a long time they have been untouchable, but there’s a crack in the armor,” she said. Morey cited changing public opinion on gun safety and problems within the NRA itself.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.