Money stands in the way of fixing the mass shooting problem

A gunman murdered 58 people in Las Vegas last week. Another horrible tragedy, another senseless body count, and another collective shoulder-shrug about how to end this madness.

As another BDN columnist, Matthew Gagnon, said in the aftermath, “there is very little, if anything, we can really do to stop it.”

If it strikes you as unfathomable that the greatest nation in the world, that sent men to the moon and landed robots on Mars, can’t stop maniacs from killing people with machine guns from hotel room windows, you’re not alone. That our nation wants something done to stop these mass executions is not anything to be ashamed of.

A memorial displaying 58 crosses by Greg Zanis stands at the “Welcome To Las Vegas Sign” in Las Vegas. Each cross has the name of a victim killed during the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival this past Sunday, Oct. 1. (Mikayla Whitmore/Las Vegas Sun via AP, File)

So why the collective apathy? How could anybody see these horrible events and simply shrug them off?

Some in the public sphere see fervent anti-gun control advocacy as an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the highly-mobilized gun rights community. Take GOP state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey for example. Brakey made the incomprehensible decision, immediately after the Las Vegas shooting, to promote the two-year anniversary of his bill that made it legal for anyone in Maine to carry a concealed firearm. As if to double-down on his heinously inappropriate timing, he then posted on Twitter that “Citizens should be able to carry at the State House. It would make us a lot safer.”

Brakey is not a talented politician. But he’s made a mini-career out of being the one person willing to push the gun argument beyond the normal scope of reason to try to be the gun lobby’s hero, all in order to leverage the gun rights movement to provide him a political platform.

Gun advocates are well-organized, but they are even better at spending money.

Take Rep. Bruce Poliquin as another example. Poliquin was not a gun lobby favorite when he first entered the political world. In both his 2010 loss in the GOP primary for governor and his 2012 loss in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, Poliquin was savaged by his opponents for his contributions to gun control organizations. The NRA actually endorsed his opponent, Kevin Raye, in Poliquin’s successful congressional primary bid in 2014.

Since he won that primary, though, Poliquin has received more than $200,000 from the NRA. And Poliquin has been a vocal supporter of their positions ever since.

Another example of gun lobby money spinning people on a dime is an organization I used to run, The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank. When MHPC was founded, then-CEO Bill Becker made it clear they were focused purely on economic issues. In a newspaper interview, Becker told a reporter definitively, “We don’t touch social issues like abortion, gay rights or gun control.” During my time at MHPC, it was a clear directive of our board that we would not delve into these issues either. MHPC’s mission statement on their website even now makes no mention of guns at all.

However, this was not the case last year. With a background check referendum on the ballot, the NRA got very interested in Maine. I worked for the background check campaign, and was shocked to see MHPC transform from an economic think tank to a full-fledged subsidiary of the NRA for most of 2016.

In January, MHPC hired a registered NRA lobbyist as their communications director. Days later, a months-long onslaught of pro-gun material began emanating from the policy center. MHPC’s blog, The Maine Wire, ran piece after piece advocating against gun control. The NRA itself began publishing material on the site, and MHPC staff authored anti-gun control opinion pieces in newspapers as well.

The NRA’s  takeover was so comprehensive that MHPC’s current CEO, Matthew Gagnon, invited Chris Cox, the NRA’s executive director, to be the keynote speaker at MHPC’s annual fundraising gala.This is the same Matthew Gagnon that last week wrote in this paper that “there is very little, if anything, we can really do” to stop mass murders like the one that occurred in Las Vegas.

So why did a self-avowed economic think tank turn over its keys to the National Rifle Association for a year? MHPC is registered as a 501c3 nonprofit with the IRS, and as such is able to shield its donors from public scrutiny. So we can never know if there was a financial motive involved. But the 501c3 status does not prevent us from making an obvious assumption.

These are just a few local examples of the transformative effect of the gun lobby. Politicians and public figures all over the country have had similar transformations thanks to the NRA, freezing progress on the prevention of tragedies like the slaughter of 20 innocent children at Newtown and the recent murder of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas.

It’s not that we can’t do anything to stop gun violence — it’s that our collective will to stop it has been purchased. And the violence won’t stop as long as the checks continue to be cashed by those shaping our public dialog.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.