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How Much Influence Does The Gun Lobby Have On Utah's Lawmakers? We Asked A Former Congressman.

Julia Ritchey
Firearms equipped with suppressors manufactured by Utah-based SilencerCo. The CEO of the company gave Sen. Mike Lee $3,000 for his re-election bid last year. Sen. Lee introduced legislation this year to loosen restriction on the devices.

House Republicans passed a bill this week allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines. It was the first major gun bill to go before Congress since two deadly mass shootings this fall, and all four of Utah’s representatives voted for it. 

The bill is likely to reignite the debate over whether a Republican-controlled Congress is too deferential to the gun lobby. 

That was a question recently posed to KUER during an open call for questions on guns following the Las Vegas and Texas massacres.

Taylor Timmerman of Midvale wanted to know which Utah representatives receive funds and how much from gun lobbying organizations or pro-gun companies.

The first part of Timmerman’s question is pretty easy. All six of Utah’s all-Republican delegation receive donations from the gun lobby in sums ranging from a couple thousand to tens of thousands of dollars every election cycle.  

In the most recent election cycle, 2016, the top recipient is not who you might think. Rep. Mia Love raked in more than $63,000 from gun rights groups, more than Utah's three other House members combined.

In the 2016 election cycle, Rep. Mia Love received the most money from gun rights groups. The Center For Responsive Politics tracks money from special interest groups and industries to members of Congress.

That comes from the non-partisan Center For Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. In fact, you can search their database by year, amount and organization for each member of Congress.

Gun rights groups have historically given more money to GOP candidates than to Democrats. Take 2016, again. House Republicans wracked up nearly $6 million in gun contributions compared to $109,000 for Democrats.

... I'm curious if there's a correlation between these campaign contributions and inaction on new gun legislation.

But Timmerman’s question is about more than just raw data.

“It also seems that Utah legislators are more willing to send condolences and prayers to victims of gun violence rather then to discuss new legislation and policies, and so I’m curious if there’s a correlation between these campaign contributions and inaction on new gun legislation," she said in a follow-up interview.

The answer to that: It’s possible. For his re-election bid last year, Sen. Mike Lee received more than $23,000 from the gun lobby. About $3,000 of that came from the CEO of SilencerCo, a West Valley-based manufacturer of devices that muffle the noise of gunfire.

In June of this year, Lee dropped a bill that would loosen restrictions on silencers. They’ve been on a list of accessories strictly regulated by the federal government since 1934 and the bill would’ve removed them from it.  

That and another controversial bill in the House have since stalled since the two most recent mass shootings, but they remain active pieces of legislation.

To get an honest answer on how special interest money can influence lawmakers, KUER called up former Utah Congressman Merrill Cook, a Republican who represented Utah’s 2nd District from 1997-2001.

Asked whether those contributions from the NRA and other groups make a difference, Cook replied: “Oh, yeah, I mean everyone tries to say it doesn’t, but of course it does.”

Cook knows better than most. He served in Congress when two teenagers shot up their high school in Littleton, Colo. in 1999, killing 13 people. In many ways, Columbine cemented the NRA’s ability to squash gun control legislation.

An effort to expand background checks to gun shows passed in a dramatic tied vote in the Senate that same year. Then Vice President Al Gore broke the tie, but the effort later died in the House.

A year after Columbine, Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced another piece of legislation to prohibit people from suing gun manufacturers whose weapons were used during a crime.

Cook says money talks.  

“You have to consider that you're there, you gotta stay there, you gotta get re-elected, you gotta to raise a lot of money – millions, millions of dollars every year," he says. "And so yeah, it definitely affects the vote, tremendously.”

Adam Winkler is a professor at UCLA and the author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over The Right to Bear Arms in America. He says the NRA and other groups are effective because they’ve spent the last four decades building a massive political operation.

“Things really changed in 1977," he says. "That’s when the NRA went through some pretty big chaos, and a group of hardliners took over the organization and redirected the NRA toward hard-hitting political advocacy,” he said. “And American politics has never been the same since.”

But there has been some movement in the other direction. Reps. Mia Love and Chris Stewart both signaled they’d be in favor of reviewing restrictions on bump stocks, the device used in the Las Vegas shooting that allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire in rapid succession.

At an event at the state Capitol in October, Rep. Love said even as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, she wanted to look at the issue. 

“We’re not going to be able to save everyone from everything," said Rep. Love. "But it’s our responsibility to look at what legislation we can put forth to pull back on some of these devices that literally take a gun that is legal and turns into something is illegal.”

But even Merrill Cook is surprised by his party’s snail-like pace in addressing some aspects of America’s gun violence problem.

They should've been able to figure out both bump stocks and the problems with mental health—crazy people buying guns, and done something about that a long time ago.

“They should’ve been able to figure out both bump stocks and the problems with mental health – crazy people buying guns, and done something about that a long time ago,” he says. “They should’ve. They didn’t. Hopefully, they’ll learn these lessons. This is the natural cycle of human behavior that we’re witnessing.”

It may be a cycle, but listener Taylor Timmerman and others have ideas for what they’d like to see happen.

“Whether that change is limiting groups of access, institute longer waiting periods, or required mandatory background checks,” Timmerman suggested. 

Timmerman says it just feels like after Las Vegas and Texas, something has to change, and legislation – any legislation – is the most obvious channel for that. 

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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