In the more than three weeks since Parkland massacre, the mood of gun control advocates has veered like a weathervane from exhilaration to frustration.
The political poise of Florida students and the decision by stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods to stop selling assault-style weapons has been an uplifting reminder that it is possible for something more tangible than hand-wringing despair to arise from a gun tragedy.
But judging from the legislative lassitude on Capitol Hill, the odds remain high that—despite the anguished TV interviews, the protests and the earnest Op-Eds—no significant gun legislation will emerge from this Congress. Despite Donald Trump’s brief moment of backsliding on guns, the Republican Party and a group of skittish Democrats seemingly remain in thrall to the NRA.
A strong case can be made that the standard interpretations for the NRA’s power fail to grasp the unique contours of the gun issue. The result: A decades-long misunderstanding of the best long-term strategy to counter the baleful influence of the gun lobby.
The standard explanation for the NRA’s clout is a variant of Deep Throat’s dictum in the movie version of All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.”
But a simple money-talks explanation fails to account for why the NRA’s cash has such uniquely powerful influence. What is it about the NRA that makes its cash so much more potent than spending by any other group?
A recent front-page article in The New York Times by Eric Lipton and Alex Burns tried to move beyond mere dollar figures in an effort to demystify the NRA’s success. Instead of stressing money, the Times article called attention to the organization’s voter guides and letter grades for legislators. As the Times put it, “Far more than any check the N.R.A. could write, it is this mobilization operation that has made the organization such a challenging adversary for Democrats and gun control advocates.”
Offering yet another theory, election analyst Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report, points to the NRA’s successful ability to entwine extreme gun rights with fidelity to the Constitution. As she writes, “Perhaps because of [their] belief of guns as symbols of freedom and safety, gun owners are much more likely to be politically engaged on this issue.”
Yet, most of these standard analyses miss another key point about the power of the gun lobby. The biggest problem that gun control advocates face—and have faced for more than two decades—is that any specific reform they pump for is likely to work only at the margins.
This is, of course, not to sniff at any reduction in gun violence. The problem for foes of the NRA is that—partly due to the Second Amendment and partly due to the estimated 300 million guns in circulation—any specific reform is likely to reduce deaths from gunfire by only a few percentage points.
With the horrors of the AR-15 embedded into our collective psyches, the emotional arguments for restoring the assault weapons ban, which lapsed in 2004, are compelling. But the evidence that such a reform would dramatically change the gun equation remains shaky.
During the debate over reauthorizing the ban in 2004, Christopher S. Koper, then with the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University Pennsylvania, published a federally funded study of the results of the legislation over the prior decade. Koper’s conclusion: “Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”
Politicians instinctively recognize this problem, which is why they are prone to overhype their proposed remedies. Sen. Bernie Sanders, in a recent appearance on Meet the Press, declared, “We have to end the absurdity of the gun show loophole. Forty percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks.” Barack Obama used the same statistic in 2012 after the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut.
But as Glenn Kessler pointed out in a Washington Post Fact Check column, the 40-percent number is entirely based on a small-sample telephone survey from the early 1990s. Comprehensive research from 2015 suggests that only 13 percent of all guns are sold without background checks.
Yes, closing the gun-show loophole would undoubtedly save a limited number of lives. But timorous politicians who oppose such modest measures probably tell themselves that the benefits do not match the risks of losing their political career because of the take-no-prisoners opposition from the NRA.
Maybe it is time to end the self-defeating search for a gun proposal so modest that it can survive a Senate filibuster and work its way through the Republican House. Instead of going small to the point of near-invisibility, a strong case can be made that it is time to go large.
The idea would be to put every practical gun-control measure that could save lives (and could pass Supreme Court muster) in a single piece of legislation. For example, limits on the types of guns that can be sold, the types of ammunition available, age restrictions, enhanced background checks and rigorous federally funded research on further ways to reduce gun violence.
Then, and only then, could you make a credible case that thousands of lives each year are hanging in the balance. That would present Congress with the stark choice between dramatically reducing gun violence or continuing to cater to the extremist whims of the NRA.
There is no guarantee such a counter-intuitive legislative strategy would succeed in the short run. But gun-control groups have been battling to reduce the death rate for more than 20 years with nothing to show for it. Dreaming big at least offers the hope that someday politicians will find the courage to reduce what Donald Trump called—in a wildly different context—"this American carnage."
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.