A new kind of arms race with the NRA

We need innovative strategies for gun policy–not (merely) new policy ideas, but new strategies to change the political dynamic to engage the silent majority more effectively on this issue. Over at CNN.com. my University of Chicago colleagues Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig offer an intriguing suggestion.

A key challenge for gun policy reflects the asymmetric passions of the two sides. The National Rifle Association and its allies hold unpopular views in the country at-large. Yet they want it more. They are more passionate, more organized, and more focused on promoting their agenda than the majority of Americans who oppose them. Link that with our legislative structures that magnify the influence of rural areas most likely to hold pro-NRA views, and you see where this is going.

Right now, because of Newtown and related atrocities, there is a window of opportunity for people who feel passionately on the other side. Yet we all know that this window of opportunity may quickly close. The public spotlight and the newspaper headlines will soon move to the debt ceiling or other matters. Americans will still be sad and angry about the continuing toll of gun violence. Yet these feelings are unlikely to translate into effective legislative action.

durbin presser

Unless that is, the more liberal side on gun policy finds new innovative strategies.

Over at CNN.com. my University of Chicago colleagues Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig offer an intriguing suggestion:

The key for gun control proponents is to figure out how to turn people’s willingness to take a single action in a moment into an effortless and sustainable long-term commitment.

Here’s one way to defeat the NRA: Ask people who are upset about this recent shooting to go online and sign up for automatic, monthly deductions to a fund devoted to breaking the grip of the NRA.

For every dollar the NRA spends in helping a political candidate, this new fund would spend $2 to help the opponent (whether in a primary race or general election). Many politicians are currently afraid that opposing the NRA would lead the organization to stop providing their campaigns with either cash contributions or in-kind support (such as advertisements and other forms of advocacy). Creating a fund that guaranteed a two-to-one match of NRA support — but for the other side, ideally who supports stronger gun control — would weaken the NRA’s political clout.

And how much should gun control proponents ask people to pledge? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent about $20 million on political activities in the 2012 election cycle; including a little more than $1 million on direct campaign contributions and around $8.5 million on independent campaigns in support of congressional candidates.

Will this work? I don’t know. There is a static quality to their analysis that bears watching. If liberal groups go head-to-head with the NRA, conservatives are sure to follow. A different kind of arms race may well ensue.

I hope Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, or some similar wealthy gun control advocate takes this seriously. Much conventional political conversation reflects the conventional wisdom of the 1990s: Gun control is simply too toxic. That may be an outdated view….

Political pros in both parties blame Democrats’ 1994 losses on the NRA. That experience has understandably chilled many Democrats’ ardor to press gun issues. Yet almost twenty years have passed. Republicans have solidly won previously-contested rural areas. Meanwhile, Republicans need to win back socially moderate suburban voters who might be repelled by efforts to loosen restrictions on high-capacity magazines. So Democrats have less to lose through support for gun control. America has become a more urban society. The percentage of Americans who own guns has declined. We elected (and reelected) a president named Barack Hussein Obama.

The vibe seems different now, too. After the Aurora shootings, I was in a public meeting with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. He was asked if anything would be done. He said no. After all, we had recently endured a congresswoman being shot in the face with no resulting action. Durbin sounded much more optimistic at a press conference yesterday (see my clunky iPhone pic above) regarding the possibilities for effective legislative action.

Increasing numbers of Americans, across the ideological spectrum, realize that an absolutist stance on the Second Amendment is producing too many gun homicides. We need fresh thinking—not just about new policies, but also about new political and organizing strategies to change gun safety. Ethan and Jens’s ideas here deserve broader discussion.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

35 thoughts on “A new kind of arms race with the NRA”

  1. This is what Bloomberg Business Week says about support for bans after Newtown:

    ““Levels of support for gun control still fall far short of where they were as recently as 2008,” said Michael Dimock, associate research director at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

    Assault Weapons
    Dimock’s group also surveyed Americans after Newtown. Asked about “assault weapons,” which were restricted for a decade by a porous law that expired in 2004, respondents were equivocal. Forty-four percent said they would support a renewed ban; 49 percent opposed one. Gallup’s December poll produced nearly identical results on questions about assault weapons. That’s not a powerful mandate for a renewed ban.”

    So, this is NOT a question of intensity of preference of NRA types, this is a plurality of the country not wanting an assault weapon ban. After Newtown.

      1. No, actually he does, you’re just biased. Seriously, I know you don’t like what LaPierre has to say, but can you cite even one solitary lie you’ve caught him telling you? Because lies coming from gun control organizations aren’t hard to come by.

        Honestly, I don’t know how you’re expecting an “independent” source for how many people joined the NRA in the last month. I don’t suppose you’d consider the NYT a mouthpiece for the NRA, and they put NRA membership at over 4 million. A 2% gain in membership in a month isn’t exactly implausible. According to several sources, the Brady Campaign has a membership of around 28K. Now, if THEY claimed to have added 100,000 members in a month, you might get suspicious. But the NRA? It’s a blip compared to their total membership.

          1. And yet, you can’t cite a lie he’s told. In my book, that makes *you* the one who’s unhinged.

          2. his attempts to blame mass killings in particular and societal violence in general on video games and movies are contrary to the vast majority of research on the relationships between them. i would put that in the category of at least an unacknowledged and uncorrected misstatement.

            like carrie nation on saloons or thaddeus stevens on slavery, mr. lapierre is a grim and dedicated advocate on an absolutist interpretation of the 2nd amendment. that kind of dedicated vehemence makes him seem offputting to anyone who finds daylight between their position and his. without people like him the great work on the issues of our time could not be done but that doesn’t make them likeable nor does it mean that they are always right. i certainly recognize my own biases and work to understand the other side of an issue and what the implications would be if the other side of that issue were, for lack of a better term, “correct” before i define my opinions. i do not exist in the realm of metaphysical certitude which someone like nation, stevens, or lapierre inhabit but in the end i feel my core values are all the stronger for having questioned them and struggled with them.

            do you, mr. bellmore, recognize your own biases?

          3. in my attempt to provide you with an example of something untruthful that mr. lapierre was saying i seem to have offended you in some way. i apologize for that and if this blog had a feature that would allow me to edit my comments i would gladly change the offending section to “. . ., mr. lapierre is a grim and dedicated advocate of his organization’s interpretation of the 2nd amendment.” it really doesn’t matter with regards to the overall point of that paragraph. indeed, i was actually trying to pay mr. lapierre the compliment that he is as dedicated to his mission as the other people i mentioned.

  2. Favored pollsters telling us what we need to hear notwithstanding, I like this new fund idea. I think it is far past time for a conversation, and the gun fetishists being scared of even a conversation is an indicator of a weak position.

    1. People don’t like crazy-sounding people with gun fetishes. The extremism of the NRA and the unhinged behavior of their supporters is in the process of making them look roughly as sympathetic as the Weathermen.

      1. Alternatively, this desperate effort to stampede people into doing something stupid before they have time to think about it will fail, because too many people are wise to you already.

        Time will tell which of us is right.

        1. before they have time to think about

          Civil Society has discussed this travesty for years. A good start it to repeal all the laws the NRA bought in the last 10 years.

          Those who are mischaracterizing the discussion show us their position is weak.

  3. We’re not particularly scared, we just know that there’s no point to “conversations” in biased venues, intended to be held while people weren’t thinking straight. How often does somebody like Piers Morgan even let you finish a sentence, if he doesn’t like what you’re saying?

    You accept an invite like that, you know you’re not there for a conversation, you’re just a prop. Wayne was just as much a prop as that magazine Gregory didn’t get prosecuted for illegally possessing.

    “I hope Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, or some similar wealthy gun control advocate takes this seriously.”

    Right, you need a wealthy donor, because some rich guy paying for an astroturf campaign is your only option. Because you don’t have an actual base of support. Not one gun control organization is an actual membership organization with an elected board in control of things, funded from members’ dues.

    And that’s why the scheme won’t work. There are, simply, unavoidably, more people who agree with us, than agree with you. We can out donate you without raising a sweat.

    1. And we rely on people like you to make the case that you’re fanatics and not to be trusted.
      The world will not end if you can’t buy large ammunition clips.
      We manage to enjoy driving, yet we also have speed limits and driver’s licenses.

      1. “The world will not end if you can’t buy large ammunition clips.”

        Is that how new laws restricting the exercise of civil liberties are justified? They’re a good idea if they won’t bring about the end of the world? How many restrictions on driving would pass that test, and still be stupid?

      2. @marc–i think the best way to handle “assault rifles,” and high capacity clips is to categorize them in the same way as full-auto firearms, silencers, and sawed-off shotguns thereby allowing their purchase but providing a greater assurance that they will not be in dangerous hands.

        1. How do you plan to do that, now, when you couldn’t do it 20 years ago, with much higher levels of public support?

          And “assault rifles” ARE full-auto, remember? That’s why you call ordinary semi-auto guns “assault weapons“, to trick people into thinking they’re full auto.

    1. Alternatively, the NRA, which puts a monthly magazine in to the home of every member, would just explain why it takes those positions, and most of the members might then agree.

      1. the nra has been explaining these positions to its members for the past 40 years. the indications that its members disagree anyway could give the leadership of the nra a reason to reflect on which of these positions are actually part of its ongoing mission and which of them that represent extremes that are unnecessary to its mission. i’m not saying they have to engage in such reflection, serious reflections on purpose and meaning are as difficult for organizations as they are for individuals: maybe even more difficult.

        1. You suppose all of the 28k or fewer members of the Brady Campaign agree with every bit of that organization’s stands?

          My point remains: The largest pro-gun organization has a membership North of 4 million. The larges anti-gun organization has a membership South of 28 thousand. And from this you conclude that the NRA is a fringe group, and gun control is the triumphant wave of the future, on the verge of it’s greatest victories?

          This is delusional, the sort of thing you end up believing when you live in an echo chamber, where everyone around you shares your opinions.

          The gun control movement has some great strengths. Gun control is disproportionately popular among political elites, meaning that the political class is predisposed to give you what you want, as long as they think they can get away with it. Gun control is disproportionately popular among the media, which means that the pro-gun side always gets bad press, and you always get good press, and enormous efforts can be deployed at times like these to falsify public preferences, by fooling people into thinking everyone around them agrees with you. (A pity that years of this have given the media such a poor reputation for honesty that the NRA is much more trusted by the public.)

          But you have some enormous weaknesses, and the biggest of these is that you’ve NEVER been a genuine mass movement in this country. Which is why the organizational structure of the gun control movement simply imploded when a few wealthy individuals and foundations decided they were wasting their money on you. It’s why Harold above longs for “Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, or some similar wealthy gun control advocate”, to energize your side with an infusion of money.

          You’re not a mass movement, you’re a fringe movement in America, and if you haven’t the funding to run your astroturf operations, you’re not really capable of accomplishing anything.

          1. Brett, are you aware that comparing the Brady Campaign to the NRA is silly because they are different types of organizations? The Brady Campaign is strictly an advocacy group. The NRA, on the other hand, is a major organizing body for shooting sports. Brady Campaign members are likely to strongly support the Campaign’s political posturing, because that posturing is the Campaign’s raison d’etre. Not so the NRA, whose members may join simply as part of participating in activities the NRA organizes, not out of a desire to promote the organization’s extreme political positions.

            Don’t act like the Brady Campaign is the ideal measure of the gun-control position. Many organizations, some very large and very mainstream, support gun control, though not necessarily as their core mission. The member organizations of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example, include several large mainstream churches and other religious organizations, the American Psychiatric Association and other major health organizations, the National Urban League, the YWCA, the US Conference of Mayors, and others still. Maybe not every Methodist in America will claim to support gun control, but they tithe to a church that promotes it. (That denomination outnumbers the NRA all by itself, before you even throw in the Presbyterians or the UCC, who both also have seven-figure memberships. Gun control is not “fringe”, however much you may wish it to be so.)

            The NRA likewise has many members who join primarily for reasons entirely apart from political advocacy. My dad’s a member of the NRA because he participates in organized shooting sports, which the NRA largely runs. He also thinks that “well-regulated militia” means something. Your position is like saying that because every major-college student-athlete participates in an NCAA program, they must all personally support the NCAA’s complete platform on amateurism. Nonsense – they just want to play their game.

          2. That the NRA and the Brady bunch are different sorts of organizations is exactly my point: The NRA is a popular, massive membership organization, the Brady bunch are the remnants of a fringe astroturf effort.

            There isn’t any organization remotely the size of the NRA, which is as distinctively anti-gun, as the NRA is pro-gun. There would be, if gun controllers actually had the level of public support they like to pretend.

          3. Once again, you don’t get it. “Pro-gun” is a partial and misleading description of the NRA when comparing them to the Brady Campaign. Part of what they do is promote pro-gun laws. Another part of what they do is promote gun activities, which wouldn’t be remotely threatened by gun control, if pursued sensibly (as the NRA itself once understood – they promoted gun control once upon a time). As opposed to the Brady folks, who promote anti-gun laws and…what? “non-gun activities”? You see how silly the comparison is?

            The Coalition members, however, are not “fringe astroturf efforts.” They’re major social institutions whose broad missions have a large popular base. Your trouble is failure to recognize the asymmetrical nature of the conflict. Guns are a special interest. Public safety is not. The two sides are bound to look different. But that you don’t recognize that is to be expected from a guy prone to “both-sides-do-it”.

          4. An even simpler explanation:

            The NRA – what do they want? Pro-gun laws. Why do they want them? So they can engage in their special hobby, which they themselves organize through the same association. Many members enjoy the organized activities without feeling strongly about being able to legally own any kind of gun in existence. It’s natural, however, that they come together because it makes organizing the activity easier.

            The Brady Campaign – what do they want? Gun control. Why do they want it? So they can live without fear of getting shot – a very popular, not-at-all-special activity that already has a separate organization known as “civil society”. The Brady members consist solely of some of the most politically-committed gun-control supporters. Other gun-control supporters may also feel strongly, but don’t really need to be brought together into a single group to participate in their preferred activity of “staying alive” – although it might make them more politically potent.

        2. brett, i don’t know what i’ve done to rate the vehemence and volubility of your response. go back to my original comment. i stated that i found it hopeful that actual nra members differed from the leadership of the nra on some possible gun control measures. this information came from polling done by a pollster who is not a friend to progressive causes as reported by a website which is also not a friend to progressives. i don’t necessarily object to vehemence or volubility but it seems remarkably out of proportion to what i said.

          1. Nav, efforts to exploit this tragedy to attack a basic civil liberty have me on edge. I get particularly annoyed at the delusional nature of the assumptions behind some of these posts, that the NRA is some wildly unpopular fringe group inexplicably defeating the popular gun control movement.

            No organization finds itself in complete agreement with it’s membership, because said membership don’t agree with each other. The NRA is regarded by many of it’s members as wishy washy sellouts, others as going too far, that they manage not to be losing members left and right suggests that they’re not doing too bad a job of splitting the difference.

          2. i wish you would point to any part of my statement that represents an example of a delusional assumption, i pointed to reportage about a poll done by frank luntz on the politco website and then i expressed my opinion that the poll results were hopeful. i used the word hopeful because i favor more stringent regulation of firearms, an opinion i’ve never hidden from you. mr. bellmore, is your vehemence really in response to my comment or are you acting out on your frustrations with other commenters or is there an alternative i have not thought of?

    2. Nav, yours is the ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ theory of getting to gun control. You’ve made a nice clear statement of the camelnose strategy, and it’s why NRA brass struggle so hard against stuff which seems minor and sensible: they believe the smaller-clips buyer-id etc strategies are being advocated by people who, once they get this inch, will try and take a mile.

      This is actually an issue I don’t have a strong sense where I want it to go – I have shot a pistol exactly six times (at a can of Coke fifteen feet away, I never hit it but I scared it a couple of times) – don’t own a gun. I’m a bit worried about copycat nutballs shooting up my kids’ schools, but I kind of think armed janitors are likely the best defense (‘when seconds count, the police are only minutes away’). There are a couple hundred million guns out there, nothing is going to unring that bell.

      My guess is that Obama thinks the status quo is not a huge problem, that he will accept the Biden report and ask Congress to enact, and that he will then gracefully accept defeat and go on to the things he does really care about.

  4. There is a huge range of different cultural perception with regard to gun control. Here in fly-over country the overwhelming majority are skeptical. I have no doubt that the issue is perceived quite differently by large majorities in places like LA, NY, or CHI.

    Yesterday I noticed that a local TV news story about a weekend gun show led with ominous warnings that new federal gun-control measures are being considered and gave a very friendly interview with a show organizer, deliberately referring to “the gun-show loophole” allowing him to offer the correction “private-sale loophole” and explain that it was still in-force and that private as well as commercially-licensed sales of guns were being offered at the show. The very clear message was “get your guns now while you still can” and I have little doubt that the message was well-received.

    Right now I’m watching a news story about huge spikes in NRA membership and gun permit applications, and I’m thinking that any further gun-control measures which might actually become law are going to require scope and effectiveness on a scale far greater than any we’ve ever experienced in the past in order for gun-control advocates to overcome this reactive effect enough to achieve a net positive result toward their stated goals from their recent flurry of efforts to that effect.

    Now I’m not trying to rub it in that these recent gun-control efforts seem to be self-defeating, therefore my cultural view wins out, proving it’s “correctness”. I’m saying that culturally symbolic status competition underlies the issue and inflames the sort of polarizing tribalism and suspicion of the other tribe that naturally leads to these sorts of self-defeating effects.

    So I think Brett is right to warn that “this desperate effort to stampede people into doing something stupid before they have time to think about it will fail”, but I also think his overall competitive focus on the culturally symbolic aspect of the debate is self-defeating to his argument, because it invokes an immediate dismissive, identity-protective form of motivated cognition in those who don’t share his cultural views, weakening rather than strengthening their appreciation for his point of view. I also think Brett’s culturally competitive focus is the direct result of the exact same phenomenon as a reaction to Pollack’s equally culturally competitive statement: The National Rifle Association and its allies hold unpopular views in the country at-large.

    1. Yes, some of our views are unpopular, in a low intensity sense. (Opinions are vectors, they have both direction and magnitude, and often the latter is so tiny for the “opinions” pollsters measure as to render them practically fictional.)

      Movements are virtually always led by people who hold more extreme versions of viewpoints. This is because most people haven’t thought about many of these subjects, their opinions are essentially unformed. If they become interested enough to think about a topic, they’ll generally move out of the muddled middle, and settle into one of the more coherent extremes. Some people, on actually settling down to THINK about guns, come to agree with gun controllers, and cease to hold mainstream views. Others, more people, once they start thinking about guns, come to agree with the pro-gun movement, and, again, no longer hold the mixed up “popular” views.

      On essentially any topic most people aren’t thinking about, the “popular” position is intellectually incoherent, and all the people who care hold “unpopular” views.

      My point is that massive evidence demonstrates that this complaint, however true of the NRA, is more true of the gun control movement. The proposed legislation and actions are being driven by people whose views are much LESS popular than the NRA’s. Which is why the NRA is free to openly advocate what it believes in, while you don’t see the gun control organizations, (To the extent they survived being cut off from the funding Harold longs for a return of.) openly advocating THEIR goals.

      However fallible our democracy is, it IS a democracy, and the huge trend over the past couple of decades away from gun control, and towards CCW reform and stand your ground laws, demonstrates who is in better touch with the people. We didn’t “buy” it, we persuaded people to agree with us.

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