January 18, 2013

The Best Way to Stop a Bad Gun Lobbyist Is With a Good Gun Lobbyist

The Newtown tragedy has led to calls from across the political spectrum for a real dialogue about how to curb gun violence. But one group thinks it is so big and so strong it doesn’t even have to discuss common-sense laws regulating guns.

The National Rifle Association this week unleashed its lobbyists on Capitol Hill to deliver their singular message: no new gun laws. The NRA is a textbook example of a nonprofit organization making maximum use of the power of advocacy.

But those who feel we can’t tolerate one gun massacre after another, those who are tired of substituting makeshift memorials and candlelight vigils for real action, are learning how to fight back, taking advantage of the same nonprofit advocacy rights used by the NRA itself. The Christian Science Monitor calls them a “dream team” of gun-safety advocates, led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Fighting fire with fire, they are joining more established groups in mobilizing the power of nonprofit advocacy to reduce the chances of another Newtown.

Many of these groups are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code­—as is the NRA. So their fight teaches another lesson: In spite of some questionable use of the (c)(4) status by some groups during the recent election, these nonprofit advocates are important players in the policy debates at the heart of our democratic process. Certainly, 501(c)(4) groups are in a better position to challenge the NRA’s famously effective political operation than are charities, which are classified under Section 501(c)(3) and can devote only a small part of their activities to lobbying.

In contrast, (c)(4)s may engage in unlimited lobbying. They also face fewer restrictions in their ability to criticize elected officials. In fact, a 501(c)(4) may engage in partisan political activities, provided doing so is not its primary purpose. This includes endorsing and opposing candidates and making independent expenditures.

Can nonprofits mobilize public outrage to put pressure on elected officials before the nation moves on?

The only way to counter groups like the NRA is to get in the game and play in the same arena as they do. As Ms. Giffords wrote in an op-ed announcing her group: “Achieving reforms to reduce gun violence and prevent mass shootings will mean matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources.”

That lesson is being learned:

  • The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence launched a series of newspaper ads condemning Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat for attacking the president’s proposed changes to gun laws.
  • This month, on the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., Mr. Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, ran a television ad in which Roxanna Green, the mother of the massacre’s youngest victim, asks lawmakers to “stand up to the gun lobby.”
  • MomsRising, which recently added gun control to its policy agenda, is circulating a petition demanding that Wal-Mart cease sales of assault weapons.

Even though (c)(4)’s are helpful, they are not enough. Political action committees—entities that can devote 100 percent of their resources to supporting or opposing candidates—are also needed. Ms. Giffords’s new group, Americans for Responsible Solutions is a Super PAC. Mayor Bloomberg also has one to elect pro-gun-control candidates.

All nonprofit groups, regardless of their tax status, have their role to play in the campaign to strengthen gun laws. Charities like States United to Prevent Gun Violence and the Violence Policy Center can educate the public and mobilize grass-roots support for reforms. The (c)(4)s can bring gloves-off lobbying tactics and limited political activity. PACs can then put the money into campaigns supporting candidates who vow to overhaul gun laws.

Though (c)(4) organizations and PACs tend to be stigmatized because of the abuses of a few, nonprofit advocacy organizations, in all of their forms, are indispensable actors in our democratic system, allowing the voices of concerned citizens to be heard and amplified. Nonprofits that favor common-sense regulation of guns are learning that the best way to stop a bad gun lobbyist is with a good gun lobbyist.

Abby Levine is legal director of Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy program, which focuses on getting nonprofits more involved in efforts to influence policy.