Political Money Trackers Accused of Anti-Gun Bias

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Charges of liberal bias were leveled Thursday against a campaign finance watchdog organization known throughout the country as the preeminent source of information on campaign contributions.

The source of the alleged bias is an email alert published by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) that described a recently passed House bill as an attempt to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits related to the "damages resulting from their products."

Dave Kopel is the research director at the Independence Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research organization and a recognized expert on Second Amendment issues. He told CNSNews.com that CRP's description of the legislation could lead readers to believe lawmakers are proposing that the gun industry receive special protection for wrongdoing on its part, which Kopel said is not the case.

Campaign Finance Watchdog

Anyone wanting to know how much money federal politician "A" received from contributor "B" need only click on the website of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), where one can view the most recent campaign contribution data from the Federal Election Commission.

Visitors to the site can quickly navigate through a wealth of information under links such as "Who's Giving," "Who's Getting" and "Get Local!" It provides the ability to search for contributions to members of Congress by name, by political party affiliation and even by the committees on which they serve. Similar information about the executive branch is also available.

CRP also provides a, "Money in Politics" email alert. Visitors are offered the opportunity to read the latest version by clicking on a link on the home page and can also sign up to receive the alerts as they are released.

'We're not ... Experts on the Bill'

In the latest edition of the alert the authors focus on legislation passed in Congress that readers may have missed because of the intense focus of the establishment media on the war in Iraq.

CRP identifies itself as "a non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy." The group characterized recent legislation passed by the U.S House of Representatives under the headline "Gunning for Lawsuit Protection."

"The gun-rights lobby, one of Washington's most powerful interest groups, has won its first battle this congressional session to combat mounting lawsuits against the industry," wrote authors Sheryl Fred and Steven Weiss.

"The House passed a bill April 9 that prohibits plaintiffs, and particularly local governments, from suing gun manufacturers and distributors for damages resulting from their products," they continued.

Kopel countered that, "It might be more accurate to characterize it as 'resulting from the criminal misuse of their products' ... the firearms industry is being protected from a uniquely abusive kind of lawsuit which it is unique in being victimized by."

As CNSNews.com reported April 11, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (H.R.1036) specifically bans only those lawsuits against gun or ammunition manufacturers or dealers that Kopel described, "for the harm caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products or ammunition products by others when the product functioned as designed and intended."

CRP's Weiss told CNSNews.com late Thursday that the brief description was a sincere attempt to summarize the bill.

"We weren't attempting to go very deeply into it, the primary purpose being just to show what the bill did and who was behind it and who was opposed to it," he said, "These are very brief write-ups. We devote all of four paragraphs to this and three of them talk about campaign contributions.

"We're not, in any way, trying to call ourselves experts on the bill itself," Weiss added.

No Mention of 'Very Strong Bipartisan Support'

CRP's email alert also quoted Massachusetts Democratic House member James McGovern, who voted against the ban, as claiming that the bill was "meant only to satisfy the gun industry."

"The majority leadership in this chamber is compelled to prove to the pro-gun special interests that they will do whatever it takes," CRP quoted McGovern as saying.

The authors quoted no supporters of the bill, Republican or Democrat. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act passed by a vote of 285 to 140. Sixty-three Democrats supported the proposal, nearly one-quarter of the total voting in favor of the bill.

Kopel questioned the absence of even a mention that nearly one-third of House Democrats supported the bill.

"It certainly is something that doesn't appear at all in the article and, obviously that's not a complete portrayal of the situation because this bill clearly had very strong bipartisan support," he said. "You have a House that's very closely divided on a partisan basis and this bill passed by an overwhelming margin with lots and lots of Democratic support."

Fred and Weiss did mention one of the arguments made in support of the lawsuit, but attributed the sentiment solely to one political party.

"Some House Republicans said such litigation is intended to bankrupt the gun industry," they wrote.

Kopel agreed with that statement, but said "some House Republicans" are not the only ones who believe it.

"What this does is protect the gun industry from the kind of lawsuits that get filed against the firearms industry only because it's the target of people who are trying to bankrupt it and to impose on the firearms industry special restrictions because of their own animus against guns," Kopel argued. "Nobody goes around suing other manufacturers of lawful products, which are sold, in the case of firearms, after you get FBI permission through the background check system."

The Center for Responsive Politics also pointed out the amount of money spent by the gun industry and supporters of the Second Amendment to influence Congress.

"The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups gave a combined $2.7 million in PAC, soft money and individual contributions in the 2002 election cycle (93 percent to Republicans, 7 percent to Democrats)," the authors wrote.

Even though CRP also maintains data on groups that oppose Second Amendment rights - such as Handgun Control, Inc. (now known as the Brady Campaign) and Voters Against Violence - there was no mention of the money those organizations spent to advance their anti-gun agenda. Weiss said brevity, not bias, was the reason for the omission.

"If you click on the 'gun rights lobby' link, you'll see on the left hand side of the page a section for industries in this sector where it says 'gun rights,'" he explained. "If you pull that down, just above it is 'gun control' and you can see the campaign contributions of those groups.

"It's not nearly as much," Weiss volunteered. "They do a lot of their efforts with the public rather than with actual lobbying, but we do keep track of their contributions, as well."

According to CRP's data, groups opposed to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms spent $117,856 during the same reporting period as Fred and Weiss identified. Of that money, 101 percent went to Democrats according to CRP. The more than 100 percent number comes because an $869 contribution was made to a Republican candidate, who returned the money.

Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America believes the CRP report could lead readers to believe that a false claim commonly made by anti-gunners is actually true.

"They like to convey that they have 'the people' behind them, and that they are the 'little people' fighting against the 'big corporations,'" Pratt charged. "Really, we see that the reason why the NRA is spending so much money is that they are relying on individual contributions from the people.

"They're the ones that have the big membership," he added, "because people in this country do support the Second Amendment and support gun rights."

Kopel agreed that, "it was misleading for the article to talk about the financial contributions on one side of the issue without talking about the financial contributions on the other side of the issue."

CRP Willing to Issue Correction, If ...

Pratt believes that, when the entire email alert is compared to the facts surrounding the passage of the legislation, CRP appears to be biased against the legislation.

"Certainly, for a 'non-partisan' group, they aren't treating this issue very evenhandedly," he said. "They are only pointing the finger at the NRA."

Weiss said that was not the intent of either author.

"All I can say is, we just wanted to present a brief description of what the bill was and what people were saying about it and that's what we did," he said. "If it's necessary to make a correction, we will."

That action would only be taken, Weiss added, if those who have concerns about the article contact CRP directly.

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