After the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, the gun-control movement was small and badly outspent by the National Rifle Association. Parents seeking an outlet for their grief and rage congregated on Facebook, where they formed their own group, Moms Demand Action, to push for stricter gun laws.
By far the most significant and best-known donor in the years since has been Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York City mayor. In 2013, his mayors’ initiative merged with Moms Demand Action to create Everytown for Gun Safety, the closest thing that the gun-control movement has to a counterweight to the N.R.A. That year the group spent $36.5 million, compared with $4.7 million the year before.
More groups sprang up, including Giffords, started in 2013 by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that claimed the lives of six people, and the March for Our Lives, founded by survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
As recent progress on a bipartisan gun safety deal on Capitol Hill illustrates, the nascent movement has coalesced into something more formidable. It went from being considered a guaranteed-to-lose issue for Democrats to something candidates organize around, especially on the state level. But because gun control was viewed as particularly divisive, many major philanthropists and big foundations have been reluctant to dive into an issue long seen as not just polarized but intractable.
Yet as gun sales and gun deaths have risen in tandem, and the number of mass shootings continues to increase, including the attacks last month in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, big donors have begun to move off the sidelines.
“Since Buffalo I have spoken to a dozen large funders who are quickly scrambling to figure out where they can play a role in the current gun violence crisis,” said David Brotherton, vice chair of the Fund for a Safer Future, the largest national donor collaborative working on gun-violence prevention, and a program officer at the Atlanta philanthropy the Kendeda Fund. “This is snowballing right now.”
In addition to moments of crisis, people were trying to make progress where the potential political heat was lower. More and more funders have tried tackling gun violence through the less politically divisive lens of public health, through community intervention and as a matter of racial equity. Big-name philanthropists including Steve and Connie Ballmer of the Ballmer Group and John and Laura Arnold of Arnold Ventures have begun to make tens of millions of dollars in grants on different aspects of gun-violence prevention.
The gun-control movement is better funded than it was a decade ago, but it still is not outspending the N.R.A. Even with recent legal challenges and boardroom battles, the N.R.A. remains a powerful organization with years of success in blocking legislative efforts to restrict gun sales.
It remains to be seen how the bipartisan deal for a narrow set of gun safety measures, an agreement reached by 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats and endorsed by President Biden, will move through the evenly divided Senate.
Money is also only part of the equation. More donors will help the gun-control movement spend on lobbying, research and organizing, and on donations to political candidates who support the cause. But matching the intensity and discipline of gun-rights supporters’ political activism isn’t just about who spends more.
Gun rights are an especially galvanizing issue for many Republican voters, particularly in primaries, and Republicans have been far more likely to use messaging about guns to excite their base than Democrats have for the bulk of this year, though some are increasingly working gun safety into their pitches now.
“It is a much heavier lift than everybody thinks because in attacking this gun thing, you’re taking on the entire identity and ethos of the G.O.P.,” said Ryan Busse, a former executive at the gun company Kimber who is now an industry critic.
Richard Feldman, a former N.R.A. regional political director, said that the gun-control movement might be better organized and funded than in the past but that the politics of the issue still largely favored gun rights.
“Everyone has an opinion about guns, but, come November, it’s the determining issue for gun owners,” Mr. Feldman said.
It is that strength of feeling that helped keep donors away. Liz Dunning, vice president of development at the gun-control group Brady, worked in education nonprofits and philanthropy before switching to gun control. “I know what it looks like when the really big philanthropic players engage, and it looks different from this,” she said.
“What would happen if Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the Ford Foundation came together and said, ‘We’re not going to live this way anymore, and we’re going to tap the resources that we have right now to make a difference’?” asked Ms. Dunning, whose mother was shot and killed.
But the decade of activism since Sandy Hook has laid the groundwork for change. And the grinding increase in gun violence, not just in high-profile mass shootings but also in domestic violence and suicides, has steadily added to the ranks of small donors and the rolls of volunteers.
According to the legislation tracked by the group Giffords, since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, 48 states and the District of Columbia have passed more than 466 gun laws. That includes 22 states that have closed the federal loophole that exempted unlicensed sellers from conducting background checks on some or all firearms purchasers.
“In some cases Congress is the curtain-raiser, and in others it’s the finale. And the truth is, I think it’s going to be the finale here,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, when asked about political will in Washington before the bipartisan gun safety deal was announced. “But if you look at the state-by-state action, that it’s occurred on a bipartisan basis, it shows a pretty remarkable change in political calculus.”
The face of the gun-control movement in the 1980s was James Brady, the White House press secretary who was grievously wounded and permanently disabled when he was shot in 1981 during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. In 1994, Congress passed an assault-weapon ban. After Democrats lost control of the House the same year, guns came to be viewed as a losing issue by many Democrats.
“You had all these centrists in the ’90s who thought guns are the third rail. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t talk about it. Since Newtown, the consensus changed,” said Alex Barrio, director of advocacy for gun violence prevention policy at the Center for American Progress.
The advent of online organizing helped to narrow the N.R.A.’s fund-raising edge. “The ease and the rise of online portals has made a huge difference. Back in the day you had to direct mail, which is a very expensive way to raise money,” said Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
But the N.R.A. still outspent gun-violence prevention groups on lobbying in Washington with a record $15.8 million in 2021, a factor of five to one, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.
“It is incontrovertible that gun rights continue to outspend gun control at least at the national level,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director at OpenSecrets. “The gap is certainly closing.”
In 2019, tax records show, the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund raised a record $80.7 million in contributions and grants. That year, Mr. Bloomberg announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was also his most generous to date as a philanthropist. His overall giving soared to $3.3 billion from $767 million the year before. According to the group, Mr. Bloomberg gave an extra $35 million at the end of 2019 that was intended for the next year.
Without a major donation from Mr. Bloomberg, the Action Fund raised just $20.3 million in 2020 and ran a $32 million deficit. A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg declined to comment on the timing of his donations to Everytown. Whether it was related to a personal tax bill, his run for president or something else, the organization’s spending wasn’t ultimately affected. The fluctuation does underscore the potential impact of counting too much on one benefactor, said Brian Mittendorf, professor of accounting specializing in nonprofits at the Ohio State University.
“Given the reliance on one donor, the big open question to me is what the plan is for the future,” Mr. Mittendorf said. “Will there be an effort to diversify the revenue stream?”
That would mean more people putting real money into preventing gun violence, which broadly remains a hard sell.
Donors associated with the effective altruism movement, which tries to find the most cost-effective strategies for saving or improving lives, see gun control as costly compared with interventions like mosquito nets to protect against malaria or vaccines to prevent childhood illnesses.
Ms. Dunning, at Brady, pointed to the politics of the issue and a fear among foundations of tackling something they view as polarizing. “In my conversations with smaller-scale foundations, I’ve heard from program officers and others, ‘It’s not one of our strategic priorities.’ ‘Investing in gun-violence prevention makes us nervous,’” she said.
Since the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, “I’ve been getting calls from major donors, new donors I’ve never heard from before,” she added, which could herald an increased role for philanthropy in gun violence prevention.
Laurene Powell Jobs’s organization, the Emerson Collective, began giving to gun-violence prevention groups a decade ago, most notably through the nonprofit Chicago CRED. Emerson gives $25 million annually to the group, which does outreach directly to young people in the city who are at risk of shooting or being shot.
This year, the former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, announced more than $20 million in grants to groups working to reduce community gun violence.
Arnold Ventures, the philanthropic arm of the billionaires John and Laura Arnold, started working on gun-violence prevention in 2018, the year of the shooting in Parkland. It made a $20 million gift to start the National Collaborative for Gun Violence Research to try to get data to shape good policy. In 2020, Arnold Ventures also started working on community violence-reduction strategies with an additional $5 million. This month, the group released a new request for proposals for additional research grants.
“So much more needs to be done,” Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, said in an interview. “There’s so much work to go around.”