Complaint targets gun firms for super PAC donations while under federal contract
A government watchdog group is urging the Federal Election Commission to penalize several major weapons manufacturers for violating a law barring corporations that hold federal contracts from making political contributions. Among them are the Georgia company that made the gun used to kill 21 people inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May.
Last month, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint against Daniel Defense that said the Black Creek, Georgia-based company donated $100,000 to a pro-gun political action committee on Jan. 6, 2021 — the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the presidential election. At the time of the insurrection, Daniel Defense had multiple open contracts with federal agencies and has received more than $11 million in business dealings with the federal government, according to the complaint. Facing South reported on the company's political donations and government contracts prior to the filing, which CLC said was based on its independent research.
Gun Owners Action Fund, the super PAC that Daniel Defense donated to last year, registered with the FEC on Dec. 10, 2020, according to court documents. Later that month, the PAC also received a $100,000 donation from SIG Sauer, a German firearms company that has operations in New Hampshire and a $24.5 million contract with the Defense Department, according to a separate CLC complaint filed last year. In June, the CLC also filed a complaint against Ohio Ordnance Works, another weapons manufacturer, for donating $100,000 to Club for Growth Action, another major super PAC, while under federal contract for guns and accessories.
"It's harmful to democracy when companies that are benefiting from taxpayer-funded federal contracts are also influencing the election process and the political process, because that contributes to a political atmosphere that is basically pay-to-play," Saurav Ghosh, CLC's federal campaign finance reform director, told Facing South. He called on the FEC to "robustly" enforce the federal contractor prohibition.
A spokesperson for the FEC declined to comment on the Daniel Defense case. Gun Owners Action Fund returned the donations from Daniel Defense and SIG Sauer in April and May, at the request of the respective companies, according to news reports. Daniel Defense did not respond to Facing South's request for comment.
The law behind the CLC complaints is the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which bars federal contractors from making political contributions while doing business with the government. The FEC has faced criticism for its failure to punish companies that violate federal campaign finance laws since the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case, which allowed secret money to infiltrate elections through unlimited spending and led to the rise of super PACs, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
"Campaign finance reform is overwhelmingly popular with voters across the political spectrum, but Republican and Democratic party elites are very divided — and those divisions have trickled over to the FEC," Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's democracy program, wrote in a 2019 report about the agency. The report recommended several solutions to fix problems at the FEC, which included adding an additional commissioner to reduce gridlock, limiting the use of prosecutorial discretion to increase transparency, and giving the agency more funding.
Ghosh noted that the FEC has a history of dismissing complaints because the amount of money at issue is small, or by citing prosecutorial discretion to let some offenses slide. "That simply sends the wrong messages to these companies," he said. "It says quite plainly you can try to violate the law and there will be no penalty, even if you're found out."
However, Ghosh says he's optimistic that the FEC will take action against the gun companies, given the pressure government officials are now under following the Uvalde massacre to reform gun laws and hold major firearms dealers accountable.
For instance, U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, asked the leaders of three major gun companies including Daniel Defense to testify at a July 27 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about the increase in gun violence and gun sales — particularly AR-15-style rifles, which were used by the gunman in the Uvalde school shooting as well as at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, that was also the site of a mass shooting this year.
"Products sold by your company have been used for decades to carry out homicides and even mass murders, yet your company has continued to market assault weapons to civilians," Rep. Maloney said in a letter.
Elisha Brown is a staff writer at Facing South and a former Julian Bond Fellow. She previously worked as a news assistant at The New York Times, and her reporting has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and Vox.