Gun Control Debate: How Did The NRA Win? People, Not Money

  @LauraMatt on April 18 2013 5:14 PM
Gun Control
Background checks for gun sales were at record levels at the end of 2012, according to FBI statistics. Reuters/Max Whittaker

Gun control advocates were defeated Wednesday by what appears to be an unpopular minority, when the U.S. Senate rejected seven pieces gun legislation that would have led to some of the more significant changes in decades in the way Americans buy guns.

After 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut were killed last December, the voices of gun control advocates rose in intensity. Pundits said the Sandy Hook shooting changed everything. Polls showed that a vast majority of Americans favored tougher laws, including background checks.

Despite the bloodshed, the emotional pleas and the public support of a popular president, the gun control bills died. But it was an unequal fight to begin with, experts say. 

At nearly 5 million members strong, the National Rifle Association, America’s largest gun lobby, has more people supporting its cause than do the families of gun violence victims. A $12 million ad campaign funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have helped the cause of gun control, but the gun lobby's power over lawmakers does not come from money alone.

“The NRA’s contributions are mostly small contributions from individual people, but they have a lot of members and it adds up. But it doesn’t add up to $12 million,” said Edward Leddy, a professor emeritus at the Department of Criminal Justice at St. Leo’s University, who has conducted extensive research on the NRA.

According to Leddy, the power of the people was enough for red state Democrats like Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas to vote against expanding background checks to gun shows and online sales.

“The power is actually in terms of numbers, [and] is far more on the side of the NRA because it has far more members than all of the anti-gun groups combined,” he said. “What counts in the end for Congress people is continuing to be Congress people. That’s no. 1 or 2 on their personal agenda.”

"Money is influential when the issue is not one the people pay much attention to,” Leddy said.

Lawmakers, especially those up for re-election in 2014, did the math, said David Canon, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The NRA has a more powerful voice than the gun control supporters,” Canon said. “And the NRA has shown in the past that they are willing to put millions of dollars into campaign to defeat people that they feel are too strong on gun control, whereas the supporters of gun control haven’t ever mobilized in the same way politically.”

Perhaps the biggest disappointment on Wednesday for gun control advocates was the Senate voting down the background checks bill, 54-46. The legislation drew the support of 90 percent of Americans, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. However, the NRA vehemently pushed back against the bill, arguing it would not prevent another gun massacre, because criminals don't obey the law.

Ninety percent of Americans may be a lot of people, but they do not mobilize as much as NRA members do. Besides, they do not contribute money and do not vote on that issue the way gun rights advocates do, Canon said.

“It really is all about that political calculation and it really is, I think, unfortunate that 90 percent of Americans aren’t going to have their voice heard because of this powerful lobby,” he added.

As for that 90 percent statistic itself, which has become a tenet of the debate on gun control, Leddy called it “dubious.”

“It is based on a study that was done immediately after a tragic event, which would boost it,” he said of the polls in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Still, four months after the shooting, multiple surveys on Pollingreport.com show support for background checks in the high 80 percent. Still an overwhelming majority, but Leddy thinks people are moving beyond strong early emotions and questioning the effectiveness of proposed laws.

“There is an interesting correlation between spectacular incidents in which everybody has a feeling of anger toward the crime or the criminal and after a period of reflection, they think about will this particular [law] in fact prevent the crime or will it just make me feel good,” Leddy said. “The dangerous thing, which we’ve seen in recent years, has been feel-good legislation whose main purpose is to get on the evening news, demonstrating what a wonderful person you are and how sympathetic you are regardless of whether the thing that you are recommending will actually accomplish its stated purpose.”

Still, failure to listen to such a large majority, be it 90 percent or slightly less, could have repercussions for members of Congress.

“This could hit a tipping point where this does become a political issue that will hurt some of the people that voted against gun control,” Canon said. “I can imagine it being brought up in a campaign and having it be more important politically on the other side.

“I think it’s going to take a few gun supporters being defeated on the issue of gun control to make this change,” he added. “Right now the calculation that the senators all are making makes them support the NRA. So I think it’s going to take a few senators being defeated on the issue of gun control, people who supported the NRA being defeated, to really tip this. Until that happens it’s going to be hard to change the calculations of politicians who are afraid of the NRA.”

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