NRA Sought Donations in Days After Colorado Shootings

Three days after a gunman calling himself the Joker from the Batman series shot dead 12 people in a suburban Denver movie theater, the National Rifle Association sent out a letter asking for money.

“The future of your Second Amendment rights will be at stake,” the letter said. “And nothing less than the future of our country and our freedom will be at stake.”

The letter dated July 23, which was sent to NRA supporters including to people in Colorado, doesn’t mention the gunfire during the showing of the new Batman movie July 20 in Aurora, Colorado.

It was also sent as the national debate over gun rights has flared up, prompted by the Aurora shooting and continuing after the Aug. 5 shootings at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. A gunman, identified as Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran, is suspected of killing six people in that incident before police shot him dead.

The four-page solicitation from NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre was sent to drum up funds to underwrite an advertising and grassroots campaign to defeat President Barack Obama and elect gun-rights supporters in Congress.

The letter drew criticism from the Denver-based Colorado Ceasefire Capitol Fund, a gun-control advocacy group, whose president Eileen McCarron called it “very insensitive.”

“Couldn’t they have waited at least a week, especially here? People’s souls are really wounded,” she said.

‘Heartfelt Condolences’

A copy of the NRA solicitation was provided by a former Republican U.S. lawmaker who asked not to be identified as a condition for releasing the letter. The NRA public affairs office didn’t return phone calls seeking comment on the fundraising letter.

The group has publicly been silent on gun-control proposals since the Colorado shooting. In response to the Wisconsin killings, Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s spokesman, issued this statement: “NRA joins all Americans in extending our heartfelt condolences to the victims, their families and the community affected by this tragedy. We will not have further comment until all the facts are known.”

Fundraising is increasingly important to the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA. The gun-rights organization’s membership dues were 44 percent of its income in 2010, down from 58 percent in 2008. In that period, gifts, grants and other contributions rose to 26 percent from 16 percent of revenue, according to the group’s tax returns. Total income was $228 million in 2010, compared with $248 million in 2008.

‘Confiscation’ of Firearms

The NRA’s political action committee raised almost $10 million from January 2011 through June 30, 2012, to spend on election campaigns, about two-thirds of what it collected in 2007 and 2008, according to Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. It has spent $18.9 million on federal campaigns since 1989, which ranks it as the 46th biggest donor in that period, according to the center.

The solicitation letter says that Obama’s re-election would result in the “confiscation of our firearms” and potentially a “ban on semi-automatic weapons.” The suspect in the Aurora, Colorado killings, 24-year-old James Holmes, had four semi-automatic weapons at the theater, police said.

The letter says the money will be used for “hundreds of thousands” of TV and radio ads, “especially in a handful of key swing states.” The group also plans to buy ads in newspapers and on the Internet and send mail to “millions” of gun owners, LaPierre wrote in the letter.

The “extremist rhetoric” LaPierre uses in the letter would offend the “mainstream public” in the days after the Colorado shooting, said Dan Gross, president of the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

‘Tragic Example’

“They know the public wants answers and solutions to a problem that Aurora is one tragic example of,” Gross said. “So this kind of rhetoric isn’t going to fly, but it’s just the kind of rhetoric that helps them raise money behind the scenes with a small group of extremists.”

Colorado State Shooting Association President Tony Fabian said criticism of the fundraising letter was misplaced and that the letter was probably in the works well before the shooting.

“These fundraising strategies require a lot of months of planning and scheduling,” Fabian said. “It looks like the timing is purely a coincidence.”

The NRA’s fundraising has benefited from a provision in a 1986 law that lifted the ban on interstate sales of ammunition to consumers, allowing for mail-order purchases and then Internet sales. At the time the NRA praised the law as the “greatest legislative milestone.”

NRA Donations

Through donations attached to mail-order and Internet sales, the NRA has collected $9.3 million since 1992, according to the website of MidwayUSA, a Columbia, Missouri ammunition dealer. The company’s owner, Larry Potterfield, is founder of a 20-year-old program that asks customers to “round up” their orders to the nearest dollar with the proceeds going to the NRA.

This year, Potterfield has pledged to match any NRA contribution of as much as $100 made through his company’s website. Potterfield and his wife, Brenda, are the “biggest supporters” of the NRA, according to an NRA website for the group’s top donors.

The Colorado mass shooting, in which police say Holmes purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet, has prompted calls for legislation to limit mail-order sales of guns and ammunition. Former Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who backed the gun measure in 1986, now says allowing mail-order sales may have been a mistake.

Potterfield was unavailable for comment, his spokeswoman Beth Cowgill said.

‘Financial Stake’

The donations coming from mail-order and online purchases demonstrate why the NRA is reluctant to join the debate on new gun regulations, said Josh Sugarmann, head of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun-control advocacy group.

“Recognizing the NRA’s financial stake and its main benefactor have on online sales, it’s guaranteed they will oppose any changes,” Sugarmann said.

Since the Colorado shootings, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York, both Democrats, have introduced legislation to curtail Internet sales by requiring potential buyers of guns and ammunition to present photo identification.

Other Democrats including Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Senate Democrat who helped pass a 10-year ban on military-style assault weapons in 1994, have said there isn’t much point in pushing for new gun restrictions given the NRA’s influence.

‘Common-Sense Measures’

Obama continues to support reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, though there are no plans to press for congressional action.

“We need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights and make it harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law from obtaining weapons,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in the aftermath of the Colorado shooting, said new laws wouldn’t “make a difference in this type of tragedy.”

The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns has run television ads during the Olympics calling for Obama and Romney to lay out specific plans for reducing gun violence. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg News, is co-chairman of the group.

FEC Filing

The group reported in an Aug. 6 Federal Election Commission filing that it’s spending $133,000 to produce and air that spot. The filing also says the group received $3.4 million in donations since January 2011, with $3.1 million coming from Mayor Bloomberg and another $250,000 from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

The NRA fundraising letter says the election will have major consequences.

“The night of November 6, 2012, you and I will lose more on the election battlefield than our nation has lost in any battle, anytime, anywhere,” LaPierre wrote. “Or, we will win our greatest victory as NRA members and freedom-loving Americans.”