Stop blaming the NRA for failed gun control efforts

  • Once again, many of the angry responses to the latest mass shooting focus on blaming the NRA.
  • But the NRA's influence and financial power is widely overstated.
  • Advocates for reducing gun violence fail by focusing on fighting the NRA instead of winning over the public with specific proposals.
A protester holds a sign that reads, 'NRA Stop Killing Our Kids', outside the court-room where Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was having a bond hearing in front of Broward Judge Kim Mollica at the Broward County Courthouse on February 15, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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A protester holds a sign that reads, 'NRA Stop Killing Our Kids', outside the court-room where Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was having a bond hearing in front of Broward Judge Kim Mollica at the Broward County Courthouse on February 15, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It usually only takes seconds after a mass shooting for a chorus of people to begin blaming the National Rifle Association for allowing these atrocities to happen.

You know how the argument goes. The "conventional wisdom" is the NRA's heavy spending stops hundreds of politicians from enacting the "common sense" gun control laws they and everyone else would otherwise support.

Here's the latest sampling of this tried and true response:

There's only one problem with that theory. It's all wrong.

Of course, the NRA does spend money and it does have a sophisticated and persistent messaging operation. But so do dozens of other organizations and causes. So, how does the NRA stack up against them?

Not too well. The NRA, gun makers, and gun rights issues do not even show up on the OpenSecrets website lists for top lobbying firms, top lobbying sectors, top lobbying issues, or top lobbying industries for the years 1998-2017.

The figures for Florida Senator Marco Rubio are particularly educational, since he has been a target of a lot of anti-NRA screeds since the shooting in his home state. A look at the top 20 donors to Rubio directly and his PAC since 2009 does not include the NRA. Over his career since 2009, Rubio has raised a total of more than $91 million in donations. The NRA is responsible for just over $3 million of that, or 3.3 percent. Big whoop, as they say. Yes, $3 million is a lot of money and more than most of us could ever donate to anything. But context is everything, and the even a so-called "poster boy" for NRA donations would only be 3.3 percent lighter in campaign cash without them.

Again, that certainly doesn't mean the NRA isn't spending a lot of money. But the Poltifact fact-checking website puts the total amount of NRA spending since 1998 at $203 million. That figure is even smaller than it looks when you consider 30 percent of Americans, or about 100 million people, own a gun. By contrast, Wall Street and the broader financial industrial shelled out more than $1.1 billion in the 2016 election cycle alone. The financial industry employs only about six million people in total.

The bulk of that $203 million doesn't actually go to candidates as the hysterical tweets and finger pointers seem to believe. It's spent on those "issue ads" that you see mostly on cable news channels during election years. But even if those ads are extremely influential, they are a much different animal than direct campaign donations to individual congressional and presidential candidates.

There's even a question of whether the NRA is very persuasive among actual gun owners. Fewer than 20 percent of American gun owners are even NRA members. That should tell us something about the "chicken or the egg" argument about the gun lobby. The NRA is much more likely piggybacking off the beliefs of gun owners as opposed to framing them in the first place. The real power is with those voting gun owners, not the lobby group that purports to represent them.

Some gun control advocates are wise to this fact. New America senior fellow Lee Drutman has been working to debunk the myth of the all-powerful NRA's money for several years. Beginning in 2012, he noted the NRA hadn't even made donations to a majority of members of Congress. He also made the correct designation between allegiance and influence. That is, the NRA supports candidates that already align with its philosophy as opposed to paying them to toe the line.

Former New York City mayor and media billionaire Mike Bloomberg has thus made a futile point over the years to combat the NRA's money machine. Bloomberg founded "Everytown for Gun Safety" in 2014 based on matching the NRA's financial clout. It hasn't been a total political failure. But in the wake of so many mass shootings since 2014, it's also fair to say Everytown hasn't been able to shepherd any new significant national gun laws to passage either.

A much better strategy is to talk less about the NRA and focus more on resurrecting the anti-gun violence measures Americans have supported in the past. That includes beefed up policing and improved background check systems.

A misbegotten path is introducing new rules and misrepresenting them to the public. That's what happened last year when Democrats tried a proposed rule that they and most of the news media portrayed as a way to keep guns from the "mentally ill." But it really sought to put people into the federal government gun background database if they received disability payments from Social Security and received assistance to manage their benefits due to mental impairments. That's a far cry from "mentally ill." Even the ACLU and mental health advocates lined up against that idea, not just the NRA.

A similar mistake is being made with trying to put everyone on the TSA's "no fly" list into the gun background check database. Again, the ACLU swooped in to join the NRA in opposing that idea since that list is notoriously error-prone and using it would also deprive people of due process.

In each case, the NRA's power was overstated in getting those proposed laws defeated. That's because in each case, the NRA had a lot of help.

Here's another example of pro-gun control advocates following a misbegotten path:

The problem with that tweet isn't the sentiment, but the use of the loaded "common sense" term. Everyone is for common sense, but not everyone defines it the same way or even seeks to define it at all. Mr. Obama should know by now that legislative efforts need to be a lot more specific than that to succeed. Highly defined new rules stand the best chance of succeeding because they have in the past.

For example, we already have a national ban on gun dealers selling handguns to anyone under 21 years old. In light of the spike in school shootings carried out by current and recent students, gun control groups might want to start by pushing for extending that under-21 ban to all firearms.

That's just one idea, but the bottom line is going to nasty war with the NRA isn't a productive path for anyone. People in favor of reducing gun violence and mass shootings need to focus on specific choices and set out to convince the public to back them with their votes. Then the politicians will be forced to follow.

"Dump the NRA!" is a bumper sticker, not a policy. America needs a new policy.

Commentary by Jake Novak, senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.