Gun rights groups are powerful in Texas — but not because of money

The National Rifle Association contributed thousands of dollars to Texas politicians in recent years. But that's not nearly enough to make it one of the most prolific political donors in the state. 

A man who declined to be identified looks at Bushmaster rifles at the NRA's national convention in Houston, Friday May 3, 2013. Michael Stravato

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Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Maria G. Davila.

Hey, Texplainer: Which Texas elected officials receive the most money from the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association? And how much do they get?

The national debate about gun control reignited this year on Valentine’s Day, when a 19-year-old opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people.

In the aftermath, gun control advocates focused much of their ire on the National Rifle Association, which they blame for blocking certain gun control measures. Critics say lawmakers who receive campaign contributions from the gun rights group accede to its demands.

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Texas is as gun-friendly a state as they come. So how much money is the national gun-rights group giving Texas elected officials?

Not as much as you might expect.

The Washington Post reports that members of the Texas congressional delegation have received $427,800 in donations from the NRA since 1998. In total, 27 members of the Texas delegation, including one Democrat, have reported getting money from the NRA. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, has received nearly $52,000 since 1998 — the largest chunk of money donated by the NRA to a Texas lawmaker. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, comes in second after getting around $34,000 from the group.

This might sound like a lot of money on the surface, but in the grand scheme of fundraising, it hardly makes a dent.

Take Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA, indicating a pro-guns voting record. The Post reports that the NRA has given the Texan about $28,000 over the past decade, with the most recent donation of about $10,000 reported in 2014.

In 2014, Cornyn raised around $14 million. His top five contributors from 2013 to 2018 were companies such as AT&T Inc., Valero Energy and Chevron. The NRA was nowhere near his top 15 biggest contributors.

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Meanwhile, the NRA and its affiliated groups gave $500 contributions to at least 13 state legislators in 2017 — not an insignificant amount, but not nearly enough to make it one of the top donors in the state. The group also gave $1,000 to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

But don’t think the NRA or other gun groups play a small role in Texas. A spokeswoman for the Texas State Rifle Association put it bluntly: It’s not about the money; it’s the votes.

The TSRA, which calls itself a grassroots firearms organization that advocates for the lawful possession and use of firearms, has 37,000 members, said Alice Tripp, the group’s legislative director.

“Our power and influence is our membership, not our money. That’s really what grassroots lobbying is,” Tripp said.

Since Jan. 1, 2017, the largest contributions the TSRA PAC has given to state lawmakers were $1,000 each to Patrick and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Patrick will keynote the group's annual luncheon on March 3.

“People who carry bills for us [and] people who’ve been on committees and put up with hearing our bills — those people get PAC checks first,” Tripp said. 

The group also gave $1,000 in two $500 donations each to state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne; John Cyrier, R-Lockhart; Drew Springer, R-Muenster; and Will Metcalf, R-Conroe.

Tripp added that groups that give big money to political campaigns generally don’t have large memberships.

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“They don’t have votes. But ... they have money,” she said. “And they contribute large amounts of money because they don’t have large numbers of people whose votes they can influence.” 

Gun control advocates agree.

"Their influence goes beyond financial contributions," said Ed Scruggs, the vice chair of Texas Gun Sense, which advocates for stronger gun regulations. “They are woven within the fabric of the majority party in every facet. They’ve cultivated their contacts for decades, so they don’t really need to spend a lot of money.”

Jordan Berry, an Austin-based Republican political consultant, said the endorsement and backing of those gun rights groups are considered valuable to Texans and shouldn’t be overlooked — especially during a contentious primary or general election cycle. 

“Overall, the endorsement is considered valuable or helpful primarily because people view them as defending Second Amendment rights,” Berry said.

The bottom line: Members of the Texas congressional delegation have received $427,800 in donations from the NRA since 1998, but that’s a relatively small fraction of their overall fundraising. Guns rights groups’ biggest boost for Texas elected officials isn’t money, it’s votes.

Disclosure: AT&T and Valero have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.