ALBANY — The National Rifle Association hasn’t directly contributed to New York politicians since 2018 after Republicans lost control of the State Senate, but several gun rights groups and a legion of supporters have picked up the slack to continue the gun lobby’s influence, according to records and interviews.
Several gun-owner rights groups, such as The 1791 Society, and local rod and gun clubs and gun retail stores have stepped up to contribute to campaigns and lobby for gun rights in New York, according to state Board of Elections records.
“State gun groups have been playing a more active role politically, legally and now financially in supporting the gun cause,” said Robert J. Spitzer, a distinguished service professor emeritus of political science at SUNY Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“It is part of the larger pattern of state groups picking up the slack from the crippled NRA,” Spitzer told Newsday, referring to a decline in NRA membership as it reduces spending on its major initiatives and faces lawsuits by New York and other states over claims of mismanagement and misuse of charitable contributions.
Campaign contributions from gun-owner rights advocates since 2018 include:
- The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, East Greenbush — $89,999
- 1791 Society and its Victory Fund, West Seneca — $12,112
- East Coast Firearms, Hopewell Junction — $3,000
- Freeport Revolver & Rifle Association, Freeport — $2,800
Gun advocacy groups, which generally oppose measures they see as violating the Second Amendment, have contributed at least $109,000 to state and local candidates and political parties since 2004, according to state Board of Elections records. Two groups — the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and The 1791 Society — also have filed lawsuits to challenge gun control laws.
Until 2018, when Republicans lost the Senate majority, the National Rifle Association had directly contributed $76,600 since 1999 to candidates and political parties, almost exclusively to the state Conservative Party, according to state Board of Elections records.
Since 2018, records show, smaller pro-gun groups have made contributions to political parties rather than individuals.
The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, a tax-exempt group long associated with the NRA, and its political action committee, the NYSRP Victory Fund, combined have contributed $89,000 since 2004, with the Victory Fund giving $23,500 since 2018. That exceeded the $16,000 in contributions by the NRA in its last four years of donating to New York candidates and parties.
The Victory Fund, which is financed by gun clubs and shops and small donations from hundreds of individuals, also changed the way it made political contributions.
After the NRA stopped its political contributions in 2018, the NYSRPA fund flipped from contributing mostly to individual political candidates to mostly to political parties. From 2016 through 2018, the fund contributed $4,000 to the state Assembly Republican campaign committee and to the state Republican committee. From 2019 through 2021, it contributed $18,000 to the Senate Republican campaign committee, the Assembly Republican campaign committee and the state Conservative Party, according to records.
The result is that a candidate’s required campaign filings reflect donations from a political party, rather than from a gun rights group. That could make it easier for Republicans in the general election in November — for statewide candidates or those in competitive legislative districts — to attract Democrats and voters not enrolled in a party. Those voters not enrolled in a party outnumber Republicans statewide.
Tom King, president of the rifle and pistol association, didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
Darin Goes, the NRA’s New York State director, said the NRA adapted its strategy "by increasing our focus on member communications, legal challenges and other grassroots efforts.This has produced a 76.4% winning percentage for endorsed candidates in 2020."
Other gun clubs and gun stores also stepped up to directly contribute thousands of dollars more to candidates and parties.
For example, the Freeport Revolver & Rifle Association contributed $3,300, almost all to the Nassau County Republican Committee and the state Republican Victory Campaign Fund, since 2018. That’s a 40% increase from the previous four years. The club started making campaign contributions in 2005 and has donated $19,435 since then, according to the latest available state records filed in January 2022.
The 1791 Society, named for the year the Second Amendment was passed, also helped fill the void beginning in 2021. In two years, the group contributed $13,209 to individual candidates.
Dozens of other groups have contributed smaller amounts.
But spending on campaigns and lobbying doesn’t tell the whole story, Spitzer said. He noted that campaign contributions are often used to reward or for “reinforcement of existing loyalty” rather than to directly persuade politicians to vote the gun lobby’s way. Spitzer also found that the strength of the NRA is its “large, intense … highly motivated mass membership” that can quickly be mobilized to write letters to officeholders, stage a rally or interrupt town hall meetings held by elected officials and candidates.
“Elected officials who support the NRA’s position are motivated by a combination of grassroots pressure from constituents, the desire to avoid potentially nasty confrontations with NRA supporters (what has been labeled the ‘the hassle factor’) and ideological sympathy,” Spitzer wrote in his book.
There’s been no discernible weakening of the positions held by the NRA, the NYSRPA and other gun-rights groups, nor has there been any evidence of a loss of funding for the efforts, said Brian Kolb of Canandaigua, who was the Assembly Republican leader until he left the Legislature in 2020 and remains active in Republican politics.
Part of that continued influence is because of the low cost but highly effective way the groups lobby Albany, he said.
Neither the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association nor King, its longtime president, are registered lobbyists or clients and so don’t file lobbying activity reports, according to records of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Instead, the association’s members contact their local elected official directly to try to sway a vote on a bill.
“Tom King would talk to his leadership and have them call legislators, the same with the NRA,” Kolb told Newsday. “I think it’s the best way to get legislators’ attention.”
For politicians, Kolb, a gun owner and member of the NRA and NYSRPA, said there is added motivation to pay heed to an “emotional issue” such as gun-owner rights.
“On any issue you don’t want to run afoul of any significant or potential influence in your district,” Kolb said. “If you want to take an opposing view on guns or anything else, you have to be fairly certain of your reason why … always knowing full well that you could get some blowback on your vote, or people could write letters to the editor.”
He said it’s not that gun owners are unfeeling to mass shootings: “They regret as much as anyone any tragedy involving firearms. They also know it just fuels the effort for more gun control.”
He called for compromise but noted that mistrust on an emotional level hardens political positions.
Meanwhile, state lobbying records show the NRA and another advocacy group, the Firearms Association Inc. of New York State, have continued lobbying in legislative and executive branch offices that helped bottle up some gun bills for years.
Even with a State Legislature and governor’s office controlled by Democrats that passed a 10-point gun control package in June, gun-rights supporters can point to victories.
For example, the NRA lobbied on 13 bills over the last two years, and seven didn’t pass the Legislature, including several that aimed at stemming mass shootings, according to state lobbying and legislative records. The bills that languished in the legislative process include one that would create a felony for trespassing on school grounds, buses or children’s camps to deter tragedies before they happen.
Another bill would make a felony of unsafe storage of firearms that are then used in crimes. And the NRA lobbied against a bill that would require a “firearms safety certificate.”