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New impetus in gun debate, but where will it lead?

A six-shot revolver is placed on display in the NRA convention´s exhibit hall. (Jacob Byk/News21)
A six-shot revolver is placed on display in the NRA convention's exhibit hall. (Jacob Byk/News21)
A six-shot revolver is placed on display in the NRA convention´s exhibit hall. (Jacob Byk/News21) Gallery: New impetus in gun debate, but where will it lead?

First in a series

Twenty months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., some would say little has changed when it comes to guns in America.

Others would say everything has.

Flurries of gun-related legislation and renewed attention on the topic have not been enough to change federal gun laws. The National Rifle Association, still the most powerful entity in the war over guns in America, no longer has a monopoly on the debate.

A resurgence of the gun-control movement is challenging the status quo, and groups to the right of the NRA are also growing. Nonprofit organizations on each side are battling as they haven't in years, all trying to shape the country's politics and win over the American people.

But in spite of the evolving landscape, no progress in either direction is certain.

The gun-control movement was nearly $285 million behind the gun-rights movement in 2012 revenue raised before Sandy Hook. Today, it is playing catch-up to the money, membership, and political savvy of its opponents as the NRA works to maintain its dominance.

Over this year, News21 reporters, videographers, and photojournalists traveled across the country to assess the state of the gun debate, its evolution, and emerging issues.


'Formidable force'

With new groups, a revamped strategy, more money, and unprecedented collaboration, the gun-control movement has made headway. Organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, the group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say they are moving the needle.

"Now, for the first time in our country's history, there is a well-financed and formidable force positioned to take on the Washington gun lobby," Shannon Watts, founder of the gun-control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said at an Everytown event on Capitol Hill in May.

Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

The NRA is strong financially. Its budget has consistently hovered well above $200 million in revenue in recent years and it has cultivated a highly organized grassroots base for more than a century.

As the gun-control movement organized after Sandy Hook, the gun-rights movement's membership boomed. Groups more conservative than the NRA, like the National Association for Gun Rights, are growing. State legislatures across the country passed laws expanding gun rights.

The NRA frequently targets Bloomberg, who in April donated $50 million to Everytown, though the amount is a quarter of what the NRA raises each year.

With its near-mythical presence as a political lobby, the NRA is still by far the best-positioned player in the debate.

An amendment expanding background checks went to a vote in the Senate in 2013, which gun-control advocates saw as a victory. It didn't get enough votes to pass.

The NRA began as a firearms education organization and sportsmen's club in 1871 and didn't get involved in politics until the 1970s. Today, the NRA says it has five million members.

Around the same time the NRA entered politics, the group that became the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was founded. It attained a high profile after the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, in which Reagan press secretary James Brady was shot and partially paralyzed.

Its advocacy work in the '80s and '90s culminated in passage of the Brady Act - which required federal background checks on people buying firearms - and the now-expired assault-weapons ban, both signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

In 1999, the Columbine High School shooting led to a resurgence of gun-control advocacy. After a handful of state legislative victories, the movement fizzled.

That was the landscape when a spate of prominent mass shootings began: Virginia Tech in 2007; Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, in which then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.) was wounded; the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012; and then Newtown.

The Sandy Hook shooting touched off for the gun-control side what Everytown's director of strategy and partnerships, Brina Milikowsky, called a "once-in-a-generation moment of great transformation."

The day after the shooting, Watts founded Moms Demand Action; a few weeks later, on the second anniversary of the Tucson shooting, Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, started Americans for Responsible Solutions.

"Twenty years ago, Brady was the only game in town," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign. Now, there is a profusion of gun-control groups, including many on the state level.

November's congressional elections - the first major election since Sandy Hook - could provide a barometer for the political gun wars.

Some groups say they can now compete with the gun lobby. Others, like Giffords', say they want to match the NRA but are still too new to have a comparable budget.

Tax filings show the top six national gun-rights groups brought in close to $301 million in revenue in 2012, while six major national gun-control nonprofits raised just more than $16 million.

The most recent tax filings available are from 2012, so they do not reflect any changes since Newtown, including Bloomberg's $50 million donation to Everytown. Nonprofits are not required to disclose information about their donors.

When it comes to campaign spending, the political action committees on the two sides are neck-and-neck for 2014.

As of June 30, the NRA PAC had just more than $18 million in receipts and the ARS PAC had almost $17.5 million. ARS had spent nearly $8.5 million; the NRA had spent nearly $2.7 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Much of the NRA's power is in its passionate and faithful membership base.

Building a grassroots effort is part of the gun-control movement's attempt to compete with the NRA.

"There's never been a point in history . . . where this movement's been more unified," said Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Among gun-rights groups, the NRA overshadows others, but organizations like Gun Owners of America, which opposes all gun-control measures unequivocally, and the National Association for Gun Rights, a newcomer that is blatantly anti-NRA, are trying to challenge the older group and have seen their revenue grow.

"The NRA has taken gun owners' money and, more importantly, their trust, and used it to support those who have a horrible record when it comes to gun rights," according to one news release from the National Association for Gun Rights. The group did not respond to requests for comment for this article.


Reframing the debate

In the last few years, the NRA has opened up to new demographics, launching social-media campaigns aimed at millennials, women, and minorities. It recently debuted a show on its website hosted by a young black gun enthusiast and has six social-media accounts designed just for women.

Both sides of the debate want to reframe the conversation to use less loaded language and portray their stances as common sense. But what is described as common sense for one side is not common sense for the other.

Mental health may be the one area that has the potential to be a meeting ground.

The NRA has supported mental-health legislation, like the 2007 law meant to improve state reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which includes reporting of mental-health records. The Brady Campaign also worked to pass that bill.

In May, a combination mental-health and domestic-violence bill was introduced in the House by Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson of California and Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, whose district includes Newtown. It is still in committee.


In the states

Given gridlock in Congress, both sides are fighting battles on other fronts, particularly in the states.

Six states passed laws this year to help remove firearms from domestic abusers. In Minnesota, Everytown helped draft the bill.

 Last year in Colorado, voters recalled some legislators who passed a package of gun-control laws. The campaign was led by a citizen movement called the Basic Freedom Defense Fund.

The NRA eventually joined the campaign, but it was led by the grassroots activists.

As the tug-of-war continues, an indicator of the future of guns in America is elusive. Many are looking to the 2014 elections for a hint.

"There's no question that what we do between now and November is critical to the survival of the Second Amendment and the freedoms we all fight so hard to protect," said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

Mark Prentice, with Americans for Responsible Solutions, counters: "What's most important is the people who have been champions on this issue already and put their necks out there get to return to the U.S. Congress."

Jacob Byk contributed to this article. He is the News21 Dix/Oliver fellow.

TOMORROW: The rise of "stand your ground" laws.


About This Series

Across the country, calls rise for action on guns, either for tighter restrictions or for stronger rights for gun owners.

This report is part of the project Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, an investigative-reporting project involving top college students across the country and based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. See the complete project at

Justine McDaniel, Allison Griner, and Natalie Krebs NEWS21 PROJECT
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