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Jacob Taylor

Examination of NRA Spending Shows a Tactic of Hidden Influence

(Editor's Note: This is the second part of a four part series produced by the Student Jurnalists of the VCU Capital News Service.)

By Jacob Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – All 33 bills related to gun control and gun issues in Virginia were killed during the 2018 General Assembly session by a Republican-majority House of Delegates committee that received more than $4,000 in donations from the National Rifle Association.

The NRA uses money to influence and impact gun reform on all levels of government through political donations and independent expenditures. Since the NRA is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, its tax returns are public records. These records give a glimpse into the amount of money the organization actually spends.

For the year ending in December 2016, the NRA’s 990 form Schedule C ‒ the most recent 990 form available online ‒ shows that it spent $5.45 million nationally on political campaign activities.

The NRA also spent $33.3 million for Section 527 exempt function activities, which are defined as “all functions that influence or attempt to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any individual to any federal, state, or local public office or office in a political organization, or the election of Presidential or Vice-Presidential electors, whether or not such individual or electors are selected, nominated, elected, or appointed,” according to the Internal Revenue Service website.

Yet, these numbers are small compared to the amount of money the NRA spends on independent expenditures.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit organization, tracked 5,133 NRA independent expenditures over the last 13 years, on local, state and federal levels, totaling $115.9 million. Some of these expenditures include television, internet and radio advertising, postage and phone calls.

At the state level, specifically in the Virginia General Assembly, the numbers show a general trend: Republicans receive the majority of donations. Not a single dollar was donated to Democratic legislators by the NRA in 2017.

The largest individual donations in 2017 ‒ $1,500 ‒ went to House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox of Colonial Heights and Del. Michael Webert and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, both of Fauquier County.

NRA donations to all Virginia candidates and committees in 2017 totaled $31,580, while current Republican legislators received $16,450, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

A further examination of contributions for all Virginia candidates and committees, from 1996 to 2017, showed the NRA spent $685,478 on Republicans, including $85,660 donated to the Republican Party of Virginia. During that same time span, $88,007 was spent in donations to current assembly Republicans, according to VPAP.

“I do think that the NRA has an oversized voice,” Del. John J. Bell, D-Loudoun, said. “Some of the contributions have had an undue influence, and in Virginia, it’s kind of a worst-case scenario because we have unlimited contribution amounts.”

Bell is a member of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, where every Republican member received an average of $366 in donations from the NRA during the 2018 legislative session, for a total of $4,400. Bell also said that two NRA lobbyists had been present at nearly every meeting during this year’s session. Hiring lobbyists to go to committee meetings is another tactic used by the NRA to spread influence.

One of those lobbyists is Beatriz Gonzalez, who works for Capital Results LLC and is retained by the NRA, according to VPAP. She did not return an email requesting an interview.

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