By Heidi Przybyla
WASHINGTON — After losing court cases challenging state gun-control laws, the National Rifle Association in the mid-1990s set out to replace those making such rulings.
By helping finance the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which on its website says it works on behalf of law-enforcement officials and crime victims, the NRA began working to elect judges — as well as prosecutors — friendly to its pro-gun agenda.
The LEAA is gaining fresh scrutiny as Washington focuses on the renewed gun-control debate following the mass shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Advocates for tighter restrictions are concerned that the LEAA will become active in the debate, creating the impression the law- enforcement community is split over the issue.
The group's activities at the state level promoting judicial candidates are legal and not unusual in U.S. politics. What has been less known is the extent of its financial backing from the NRA, the nation's leading gun-rights lobby.
The LEAA received at least $2 million from the NRA from 2004 to 2010, according to a report based on tax records to be released today by the Washington-based Center for American Progress. During many of those years, NRA donations accounted for about one quarter of LEAA's funds, and in 2009 NRA money represented at least one third of the group's revenue, according to the report.
The study by the center, which tends to support Democratic policies, was obtained by Bloomberg News.
The LEAA, organized as a nonprofit group, hasn't detailed its funding sources and isn't required by law to disclose them.
"People pay less attention to state politics than they do to national politics or local politics," said Robert Spitzer, an author of four books on the history of gun control. "That's been fertile ground for the NRA."
Most national law-enforcement groups are lining up behind President Barack Obama's push for stricter gun laws spurred by the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown.
The LEAA — though it's been quiet so far — opposes much of Obama's gun-control agenda, based on lawsuits in which it opposes federal background checks of gun purchasers, which the president wants to expand. The group also has sought to overturn as unconstitutional assault-weapons bans passed by cities and states. Obama wants to reinstate a similar federal ban that expired in 2004.
The LEAA is a "front group" for the NRA, said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which backs new firearm restrictions. "The story is about the NRA and the lengths these guys are going to make up allies."
The NRA didn't respond to a request for comment. Telephone calls to the LEAA also elicited no response.
Obama and his allies in Congress are relying on groups representing law enforcement to help champion the president's gun-control measures. The president's first trip earlier this month promoting his firearms agenda was to the Minneapolis police department's special operations center.
The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, whose members include chiefs of police, is among major groups supporting increased gun regulation.
Jim Johnson, the Baltimore County police chief who heads the group, testified at a Jan. 30 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in favor of background checks for almost all gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 335,000 rank-and-file law enforcement officers, supports expanded background checks and new gun-trafficking laws.
The LEAA website contains little information about the group other than links to sections of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Dave Workman, a senior editor at the Second Amendment Foundation, a pro-gun rights nonprofit group, said it is no secret that the NRA helped start the LEAA.
"I thought they were more stand-alone as of several years ago" in fundraising, he said.
While the LEAA hasn't been part of the debate on guns since 20 children and six adults were killed at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School by a lone shooter who then killed himself, that might change as new proposals are offered in Congress, said Billy Corriher, author of the Center for American Progress report.
The LEAA was one of the Top 10 outside "super spenders" in 2009-2010 statewide judicial elections, according to an October 2011 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. For instance, the group bought $803,770 worth of air time for spots supporting two Republican candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, the report showed.
The LEAA spent $1 million on advertisements to help elect three judges to the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2012, according to the CAP study.
On the state level, "especially in these judicial races, a little bit of money can go a long way," Corriher said.
Former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a Republican elected with contributions from LEAA, upon taking office in 2002 moved to limit the Uniform Machine Gun Law, which prohibits "aggressive" use of a machine gun, according to CAP's report.
The LEAA was started with funding from the NRA while Congress was debating the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which took effect in 1994 and mandated background checks on firearm purchasers in the U.S.
Groups including the International Association of Chiefs of Police favored the measure.
Its foes, mainly the NRA, "wanted a police organization they could say opposed gun control," Corriher said.
In addition to funding the LEAA, the NRA has donated millions of dollars directly to candidates in state races, including dozens of attorneys general.
In 2009, 23 attorneys general wrote to Obama to oppose renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban. Of the 21 elected attorneys general who signed the letter, 14 had received money from the NRA, according to the CAP report.
The NRA, which claims more than 4 million members, had 2011 revenue of $219 million, according to the group's tax returns. More than $100 million came from member dues, while $59 million came from the gun industry and other donors.
Spitzer said the NRA has been "the driving force" behind enactment of pro-gun laws by state legislatures, including "concealed carry" measures allowing individuals to carry hidden weapons, especially handguns. In 1981, two states had such laws, while 39 states have them today, he said.
The NRA has been pivotal in passing so-called "stand your ground" laws in 25 states in the past seven years, Spitzer said. These laws stipulate that a person can use lethal force without an obligation to retreat if they perceive an unlawful threat.