Perhaps the most objective metric for influence in Washington, D.C., is how much an organization spends.
In 2016, the National Rifle Association and its related political action committees spent almost $55 million on lobbying and political contributions. To characterize the NRA as having excessive influence, its spending should be measured against what everyone else spends. According to OpenSecrets.org, in 2016 "lobbying" spending across every category was $3.15 billion, making the NRA contribution less than 2 percent of the total. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 40 percent of Americans own a firearm. The NRA is spending less than 2 percent of the overall lobbying dollars in Washington, D.C., to represent the interests of approximately 40 percent of Americans. By that measure, it's impossible to call their influence excessive.
To put the numbers in perspective, in 2016 the health care/pharmaceutical industry spent $248 million lobbying, the insurance industry rolls in at $152 million, oil and gas spent $119 million, and the list goes on. Dozens of special interests greatly outspend the NRA.
Without question, the NRA is a powerful entity. The issue at hand is whether it exerts more influence in Washington, D.C., than what is fair or morally proper. The power of the NRA lobby is not exclusively a product of the money it spends. The reason it is powerful is because 40 percent of the population of the country owns a firearm and the most vigorous advocate of those citizens' rights under the Constitution, the NRA, hires lobbyists to push an agenda protecting those rights.
Forty percent of Americans is a very large number, but it is nevertheless a minority. The reason the NRA is important is because the rights of the minority voice are critically important to protect. Does the LGBT community (also a minority of the population) deserve the strong lobby it enjoys? Absolutely. Does the lobby of the AARP - a strong liberal voice for citizens over the age of 50 - deserve a strong influence in the halls of the capitol? Indubitably.
In fact, like the idea of free speech, the minority opinions require the strongest voices protecting their constitutional rights.
Philosophically, the NRA is protecting something that is important.
From 1993 through 2014, the number of people who own a firearm has gone up 56 percent (office of Congressional Research Service). According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1993 there were 7.0 firearm-related homicides for every 100,000 Americans and by 2014 the gun homicide rate dropped 50 percent to 3.6 homicides per 100,000 people. In other words, it seems the more that people heed the NRA's call to responsible gun ownership, the fewer firearm homicides.
The three branches of government in Washington shun minority interests at their peril. While the NRA doesn't wield the money of more powerful lobbies, it does - rightfully - represent a contingent of citizens who believe the founders of this republic preserved their right to bear arms. The NRA's power does not come from money. It wields great influence, and the Second Amendment remains relevant, because the right to bear arms has the backing of so many millions of responsible citizens.
The NRA has too much power in DC. Let's start with the idea that every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it does. If so, our government is perfectly designed to produce no response to a series of brutal mass murders involving guns.
In Sandy Hook, 20 elementary school-aged children were killed and six adults. No response. In Aurora, 12 were killed and more than 70 injured. Nothing. After Las Vegas, Paul Ryan doesn't even want to legislate against bump stocks. Even the most common-sense attempts at legislation are squashed. People on the no fly list can buy guns. Strong universal background checks on gun sales are prohibited. This, despite the fact that most NRA members favor this kind of common-sense legislation.
The NRA has distorted our understanding of the Second Amendment. What was to be a "well regulated" militia has turned into a blind allegiance to a never changing Second Amendment. So much of the distortion is based on fear and resentment. Fear and resentment displace reason in our democratic experiment. The paranoia that the NRA spreads manifests in what was heard often in the Obama years: "They're coming for our guns. They want to take away all our guns." There was no evidence to suggest this threat was real.
Another part of the paralysis is tied to the role money plays in our campaigns. The L.A. Times this month reported on spending by the NRA: "The gun rights organization spent a stupendous $54.4 million in the 2016 election cycle, almost all of it in 'independent expenditures,' meaning spending for or against a candidate but not a direct contribution to a campaign. The money went almost entirely to Republicans to a degree that almost looks like a misprint (but isn't). Of independent expenditures totaling $52.6 million, Democrats received $265.00."
The NRA and its use of money has corrupted the electoral system. It is not alone. There are of course examples of this kind of corruption on the left and the right. The NRA is just the prime example.
Normally, when a crisis hits, we mobilize. Not so with the gun crisis.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been halted by the NRA and its congressional minions. When an airline crashes, we investigate and come up with solutions. When a hurricane hits, we investigate how we can do better next time. We must do the same with gun violence. It is truly a community health issue and must be treated as one.
We can mobilize on this issue. But more importantly, we have to stand against this fear and resentment. How? Perhaps we go small.
My friend Mike Martin founded RawTools, an organization that turns guns into garden tools. It is a small organization, as small as the NRA is huge. He founded RawTools to shout from the rooftops that there is another way: the way of love and peace.
This going small, and refusing to give in to fear and resentment, and turning to love may be our greatest hope.
Nathan Fisk is a former executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party and runs a small business in Colorado Springs. He is a member of the NRA. Roger Butts is on the executive team of the Colorado Springs branch of the NAACP and formerly served as a legislative assistant. He is a Unitarian Universalist ordained minister.