WASHINGTON -- To the firearms lobby, calls for enhanced gun control following Friday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School represent far more than the rekindling of a dormant policy debate.
They're the opening salvo in the latest skirmish of a decades-long war.
"We are in the heat of battle -- in every sense of the word," Michael Hammond, legislative counsel to the Gun Owners of America, said in an interview Monday.
Hammond said his Springfield, Va.-based group and other gun-rights advocates would thwart any new gun-control proposals. Most prominent among them is a call to renew a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which was enacted in 1994 but was then allowed to lapse a decade later.
Hammond's group and its larger, more prominent sibling, the National Rifle Association, will do this by reminding members of Congress who helped them get there.
"There are a lot of these senators who owe their election to the NRA," Hammond said. "The question is, now, are they going to turn around and stab the NRA in the back?"
Some answers have already begun to emerge. In the wake of Adam Lanza's massacre by semiautomatic rifle of 20 grade-school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., several Democratic senators who have earned high ratings from the NRA are calling for reform. And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, through a spokesman, told reporters he was open to a national dialogue on the issue.
They join Democrats who have vowed to introduce legislation banning assault weapons. President Barack Obama is "actively supportive" of renewing the assault weapons ban, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
Their success hinges on the ability to pry congressional votes from the long-indomitable gun lobby. To force lawmakers into strict adherence of their positions, pro-gun groups spend tens of millions each year on lobbying and political races, amounts that dwarf their oppositions' budgets by large orders of magnitude.
According to research from the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, the NRA spent 73 times as much as the pre-eminent gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on lobbying during the 112th Congress.
Also, in hopes of affecting November's presidential, U.S. House and Senate races, the NRA groups spent $17.4 million to support or defeat 118 candidates, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks political contributions.
But even with its outsized financial advantage and the ability to marshal support from legions of loyal followers -- the NRA alone says it has about 4 million members -- a question looms for the gun-rights lobby: Is it strong enough to repel the push for stricter firearm control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings?
The results of November's elections raise questions about its current clout. During the 2010 election cycle, the NRA and its affiliates fared far better than they did this year.
Then, they spent $7.6 million to influence the general election, according to data posted by OpenSecrets.org,
In 2010, the NRA's so-called "success rate" -- that is, the proportion of money it spent supporting the candidate that went on to win the race, and the dollars it spent opposing a candidate who ultimately lost -- was 69.5 percent, OpenSecrets.org reports.
The group fared far worse this time. Despite spending twice as much to influence the outcome of the general election, the NRA's success rate plummeted to 19 percent, according to OpenSecrets.org.
NRA officials didn't respond to an interview request for this article. However, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, the group said it was "shocked, saddened and heartbroken" by the school killings, and said it was "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The NRA is also commenting on the massacre via its Daily News web show, available at: http://www.nranews.com/ . Host Ginny Simone on Tuesday described the expired assault weapons ban as a restriction "we all know was a failed experiment from the start."
And on Monday, she interviewed John Fund, a columnist for National Review Online, who said the gun-control proposals in recent days amount to nothing more than "political football" that won't go anywhere.
"Most of them know that you're not going to pass gun control laws," Fund said. "It's just not going to happen."
In the past, the NRA has dismissed comparisons of its campaign spending and election results as irrelevant in assessing its influence.
In a statement last month after the election, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action said the organization decided to spend money on long-shot races -- not shoe-in candidates. As such, it argued, it was illogical to conclude that the failure of these candidates implied that the NRA's influence was waning.
That premise, the NRA wrote, was being driven by a "gloating media" that "had negligible integrity and a distinct bias."
Bob Biersack, senior fellow at OpenSecrets.org, cautioned against placing too much weight on this measure. "I'm always skeptical of one single metric that says, 'This group is important or not,' " he said.
The threat alone that the NRA might become active in a race can be an effective tool for swaying congressional votes, Biersack said.
"Even if you don't win all the time, it will make everyone else think about how they approach issues, how they present their campaigns," Biersack said. "It's got an impact."
The gun-rights coalitions' influence doesn't end after Election Day. Its lobbying dollars keep the lines of access open to lawmakers, who can be "convinced" of the gun groups' views of "good policy," Hammond said.
"We try to convince them, instead of threaten them, as much as we can," Hammond said.
For a spreadsheet, compiled from OpenSecrets.org data, showing NRA's spending on November's presidential and congressional races and how those candidates fared, see: http://bit.ly/ZgHiXq
(Email SHNS reporter Isaac Wolf at wolfishns.com.)