Gun Owners of America: For when the NRA hasn't 'gone far enough'

Gun Owners of America has far fewer members and much less money than the better-known NRA, but the group is emerging as an influential voice in Washington.

Another gun-lobbying organization getting Washington’s ear: Larry Pratt, President of Gun Owners of America.AP Photo: Carolyn Kaster, File

A gun rights group working feverishly to prevent the passage of several gun control bills in Congress has apparently caught the ear of several lawmakers. No, it's not the National Rifle Association.

Gun Owners of America, a lobbying organization that's been around since 1975, doesn't get nearly as much media attention as the larger, better-funded and better-known NRA, but its voice is increasingly being heard on Capitol Hill.

The group recently blitzed Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., with emails and calls after learning he was talking with Democrats about a bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, The New York Times reported. The result: Coburn, a gun rights advocate, backed away from negotiations with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., deeply damaging the prospects of the bill.

The organization is led by Executive Director Larry Pratt, 70, a former Virginia state legislator who has long been active in Republican politics. Coburn said he backed off because he didn't like a provision that would have required private gun sellers to keep records. But Pratt believes his group's campaign contributed to Coburn's decision.

"His staff admitted that it kind of irritated the senator," Pratt told The New York Times. "We were told, 'He’s getting tired of this.' But when we hear complaints like that, we know we are close to success. We are happy he changed his mind."

Gun Owners of America's mission is to "preserve and defend the Second Amendment rights of gun owners." It has about 300,000 dues-paying members, compared with 5 million for the NRA. The group spent $1.3 million last year to lobby Congress, while the NRA spent nearly $3 million, according to the Times.

Pratt told MSN News his group is "totally separate" from, and often at odds with, the NRA. 

"Each of us determines our own policies. If it happens they take same position we are, we will be acting in parallel fashion. But we don’t have meetings (with them) to decide what we're going to do."

Despite being dwarfed in size and war chest, GOA has become an influential voice as a series of gun control measures heads to the Senate floor.

According to the Times, the group has succeeded in freezing some senators, particularly Republicans, who have appeared to be on the fence about supporting bills to expand background checks and increase penalties for illegal gun purchases.

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Pratt told MSN News his group will continue to lobby lawmakers to keep gun-control legislation from coming up for a vote. "We hope we are going to be able to keep it bottled up in the Senate, and if we do that’s probably going to be the end of it," he said.

Also on the GOA's legislative wish list is passage a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, to repeal the ban on "gun-free school zones," though Pratt admits that's an uphill battle.

GOA makes it a point to differentiate itself from the larger NRA. Pratt told the Times that part of the group's mission is to stay on top of the NRA "when we don't think they've gone far enough."

Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, has called the GOA "the only no-compromise gun lobby in America."

The organization has frequently opposed the NRA in the latter's endorsements and ratings of politicians and candidates. It has also publicly criticized the NRA for what it sees as compromising on gun rights issues. This week, for example, the group urged its members to write NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to oppose a motion to bring gun control legislation to a vote in the Senate.

"We believe that, because of the strength and fervor of our membership, we are very close to winning this battle — but it would be so much easier if we were both singing off the same page," GOA said.

In an appearance on a conservative radio talk show in February, Pratt spoke about why he thinks Obama is pushing for stricter gun control policies. Pratt argued that the president is building his own private army and will send his agents "door to door" to "confiscate guns," all to provoke a "violent confrontation" with gun owners, according to an article in the Huffington Post.

Pratt told MSN News: "The reason we why we oppose the background checks, the measure currently at the top of the wish list of other side, is that all evidence points to it becoming a national gun registry."

He added: "That’s what the background check would be the predicate for," to confiscate people's guns.

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