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A gun lock on a pistol at the Meriden Police Department, June 21, 2019. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)

Gun rights and gun control groups spent $15 million on congressional and state-level races in Colorado from  2012 to 2020, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. 

Gun-issue groups dropped an additional $2 million to lobby state lawmakers. 

The big spending is expected to continue this year following the shooting deaths of 10 people last month at a Boulder King Soopers, which prompted renewed calls for gun legislation at both the state and federal levels. 

The Colorado Sun took a close look at the money spent by gun-issue groups in Colorado from 2012 through 2020. Here’s what we found.

Money makes a difference in key congressional elections

Gun-related groups spent $10.6 million in Colorado congressional elections from 2012 through 2020.

Gun rights groups had a hand in Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner’s defeat of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in 2014. But gun control groups played a big role in Democrat Jason Crow’s victory over five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in 2018, as well as former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2020 defeat of Gardner.

Only a fraction of the money came in direct contributions to candidates. Instead, most of it was spent on independent groups spreading messages attacking or supporting candidates.

Gun rights groups, primarily the National Rifle Association, spent $2.7 million attacking Udall in 2014. Gun control groups spent a relatively small sum nationally during that election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

But by 2018, gun control groups, including Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords, started investing heavily in congressional contests, outspending gun rights groups at the federal level for the first time.

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Gun control groups spent $738,000 supporting Crow and nearly $2 million opposing Coffman. The Republican received virtually no support from the NRA and lost by 11 percentage points.  

Last year, the NRA and similar groups spent a fraction of what they did in 2014 to support Gardner and oppose Hickenlooper. Gun control groups, meanwhile, spent more than $1.8 million opposing Gardner.

Some of the changing landscape is the result of the decline of the NRA, which is facing a corruption investigation in New York and declared bankruptcy earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, big donors, like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have helped bankroll gun control groups, which spent heavily in Colorado congressional contests in 2018 and 2020.

Direct donations from gun rights and gun control groups and those associated with them are lower because of campaign contribution limits. But Crow tops OpenSecrets’ list of U.S. House members getting contributions from gun control groups and individuals affiliated with them. 

Coffman, by comparison, is 13th on the list of gun rights group beneficiaries. He is now mayor of Aurora.

State level spending by gun groups peaked in 2014

In legislative contests and elections for statewide office in Colorado, spending by gun control and gun rights groups is a fraction of what it is on the federal level. 

The two sides each spent about $2.2 million in the past five election cycles.

The peak came after Democrats took control of both the state House and Senate in 2013 and pursued legislation to expand gun background checks and ban ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds. The bills came in the wake of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

The slate of legislation and the ensuing backlash from Republicans and gun rights groups  resulted in the recall of two Democratic state senators and the resignation of a third.

Then, in 2014, the two sides spent aggressively on legislative contests and the governor’s race. Gun control groups contributed to super PACs that supported Democratic lawmakers and opposed Republicans. Gun rights groups, primarily the NRA, made nearly $1.4 million in independent expenditures, opposing the reelection of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and supporting Republicans in state Senate contests.

Hickenlooper defeated former Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez in 2014, but Republicans won control of the state Senate that year, effectively preventing any more gun control laws from being passed from 2015 through 2018.

In 2018, gun control groups outspent gun rights groups 2-to-1 at the state level, helping win back control of the state Senate. Much of that spending went directly to super PACs supporting Democrats and opposing Republicans. In 2019, gun control bills started passing again.

Spending on state-level elections dwindled in 2020 as Democrats retained control of the House and increased their majority in the Senate.

But the money doesn’t stop flowing once elections are over. Since 2011, gun-issue groups have spent more than $2 million lobbying state lawmakers. 

Colorado Ceasefire, Giffords, Everytown for Gun Safety and its predecessor, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, lobbied for gun control measures. The National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights lobbied against gun control measures and for loosening restrictions on guns.

From July 2020 through the end of February, gun control groups spent more than $96,000 on lobbying compared with about $44,000 spent by gun rights groups.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...