What explains the National Rifle Association’s effectiveness in blocking gun-control legislation? That question has long plagued Democratic politicians and anti-gun activists. It reemerged after the Newtown massacre and will become more salient in late January, when President Obama unveils proposals he’s ordered up from Vice President Biden’s gun-control task force.
The answers are shockingly prosaic: The NRA wins because it’s popular with a broad swath of Americans, especially Republicans. It knows how to muscle politicians with perfectly legal, out-in-the-open, grass-roots campaigns.
Dan Gross, president of the premier Washington gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, promotes a common misconception: that the NRA has bamboozled lawmakers into thinking the gun lobby is more powerful than it actually is, like some kind of real-world Wizard of Oz. If Toto would just pull back the curtain, Gross argues, we’d all see “a rather ordinary, powerless old man.”
This wishful thinking just doesn’t square with the facts. Gallup polled Americans about guns over four days immediately following the Newtown atrocity, including on the day NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre held a take-no-prisoners press conference. (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”) Gallup found that the NRA continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the country, “as it has in all but one of the seven surveys in which Gallup has measured it since 1993.” Fifty-four percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the gun lobby.
Gallup also found that more than 80 percent of Republicans have favorable views of the NRA. A slight majority of independents share the positive opinion, while less than 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable view. These figures explain why the Republican Party opposes tougher gun control and why the Republican-controlled House will almost certainly block any ambitious bill before it gets to Obama’s desk. That’s democracy in action, not bogus wizardry.
Coastal urbanites who wouldn’t think of owning a gun may find the NRA’s hard line outrageous, but this just lays bare a cultural divide. Gallup reports that 45 percent of Americans live in a household with one or more firearms. Republicans are much more likely to inhabit one of those homes. That broad base of support means that after mass shootings, the NRA can afford to go silent for days, as it did after Newtown. LaPierre is unconcerned about whether he will win over the editorial board of the New York Times on the merits of gun rights, because he doesn’t have to. In fact, LaPierre frequently lashes out at the mainstream media because doing so, along with claiming that Obama’s real goal is to confiscate all guns, makes for a good fundraising pitch to the NRA’s 4 million members.
Even the understandable emotions prompted by Newtown cannot mask that in an era of declining violent crime, popular passion for gun control has waned. “Levels of support for gun control still fall far short of where they were as recently as 2008,” according to Michael Dimock, associate research director at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. His 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.
In this atmosphere of popular ambivalence about gun control, the NRA wins by playing the political ground game more single-mindedly than its foes. It showed its laser focus in 2011 in Connecticut. That year the state’s legislature held hearings on a proposed ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines. Some 300 opponents turned up in person. More than 50 testified against the bill. On the other side, two people spoke in support. Gun-rights advocates also buried legislators in thousands of letters and e-mails. The Connecticut lawmakers got the message and never brought the bill up for a vote. Seventeen months later, the Newtown killer used 30-round large-capacity magazines to feed bullets into the military-style semiautomatic rifle he took into Sandy Hook Elementary.
In coming months, we’ll see whether the snuffing out of the Connecticut magazine bill was a symbol of a vanished pre-Newtown mindset or a harbinger of events on Capitol Hill.