Gun-Control Groups Are Heavy on Spend But Light on ROI

Ad War to Heat Up as Both Sides Bring 'Formidable Campaign War Chests' to Midterm Elections

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In the year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gun-control groups spent $14.1 million on TV advertising. According to Kantar Media's CMAG, that gave such groups a seven-to-one advantage over gun-rights organizations, which spent only $1.9 million.

At the same time, gun-rights groups, led by the National Rifle Association, spent about $6.2 million on lobbying instead of advertising, according to a study by the Sunlight Foundation.

A push from Mayors Against Illegal Gun Violence
A push from Mayors Against Illegal Gun Violence

The gun-rights groups may have had the better tactic -- especially in a quiet election year.

White House efforts to strengthen gun-control laws went nowhere. Watered-down legislation to broaden FBI background checks of gun buyers failed in the Senate. And the GOP-controlled House did not even consider addressing gun-control legislation.

"The return on the investment has been very weak," said Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media. "When you are doing advocacy advertising you are looking for Congress to pass something."

And things weren't that much better on the state level. The New York Times reported that about 1,500 gun-related bills had been introduced in state legislatures since the Newtown tragedy and 109 of them became law. Nearly two-thirds of the laws actually ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners, according to the Times. Most of those bills were approved in states controlled by Republicans.

Gun-control groups did win victories in some states, including Connecticut, New York and Colorado, where the legislature and governorship are controlled by Democrats.

Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing New York City mayor and a billionaire, was responsible for most of the spending on the gun-control side. Founder of Mayors Against Gun Violence, Mr. Bloomberg budgeted
$12 million for an ad campaign this year. The effort was kicked off with celebrity-heavy ads demanding a plan but became more targeted as the year went on, even reaching out to "responsible gun owners."

But not all of Mr. Bloomberg's efforts were aimed at swaying Congress. He used his PAC, Independence USA, in an attempt to elect supporters of gun control and defeat gun-rights candidates. In this, Mr. Bloomberg may have had a better return on his investment.

Independence USA spent $2.2 million to defeat Debbie Halvorson, a pro-gun, former one-term House member who was vying to win a special election in Illinois' 2nd Congressional District. The PAC also spent more than $732,000 on ads to help Democrat Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark, N.J., win an October special election for Senate and $3.1 million in independent expenditures and direct contributions to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe, an outspoken proponent of stronger gun control, win the Virginia governor's race.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, gun-control broadcast advertising peaked last spring, especially in the days before and after the Senate held its decisive vote in April. At one point in May there were nearly 80 buys in the nation's top 50 broadcast markets, the foundation says.

The Sunlight Foundation predicts gun-rights groups, which have largely kept their powder dry as far as ad spending, will become much more active next year as midterm elections near. The foundation also said, thanks in part to Mr. Bloomberg, "gun-control groups … are heading into 2014 with formidable campaign war chests."

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