NRA doesn’t scuttle new laws by lobbying, but by magnifying the clout of single-issue swing voters

By Steven Hill, New York Daily News, January 30, 2011 (also published in The Guardian)

For all the outrage over the Tucson massacre, everyone knows that sentiment will not translate into common sense gun control laws. Even President Obama, for most of his career a supporter of restrictions on firearms possession, has failed on two occasions – his Tucson and State of the Union speeches – to mention one of the most obvious reforms, the banning of semiautomatic weapons like Jared Lee Loughner’s Glock and the high-capacity clip he used.

Obama has completely reneged on his gun-related campaign promises, earning him an “F” grade from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Why the about-face? National polls show a majority of Americans support bans on assault weapons and semiautomatics like the Glock. Yet as with so many other issues, majority support does not lead to government action. How can there be such an ongoing disconnect between public opinion and public policy?

Many gun control advocates blame it on the power wielded by the National Rifle Association and its campaign war chest. That’s a simplistic diagnosis. The fact is that the NRA has power not because of the deep pockets of its political action committee, but because of the fundamental architecture of our antiquated political system.

First, we elect two senators per state regardless of population, and elect a President via an electoral college system that gives disproportionate power to less populous parts of the country, which tend to favor gun rights.

Second, our presidential, statewide and key congressional elections elect officeholders in individual contests in which one side wins or loses everything. That gives overwhelming power to a tiny minority of people known as “swing voters.” New York City previously used multi-seat districts elected by proportional representation instead of winner-take-all contests for its old school board elections, and even for the City Council back in the 1940s. That method did not overreward swing voters.

That’s vitally important to understand, because it turns out that pro-gun voters are also very often swing voters – meaning, they’re among that 5% of people whose votes could change sides in a close election. Many are classic Reagan Democrats and union members. These NRA voters form a potent single-issue voting bloc.

Moreover, these pro-gun voters live disproportionately in 15 key battleground states and 40 battleground U.S. House districts. So they effectively determine the handful of seats and presidential contests won by razor-thin margins. As Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist has said, “You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position? … For that 4% to 5% who care about guns, they will vote on this.”

In other words, the NRA’s influence comes from its capacity to precisely target its supporters in critical places, like squares on a checkerboard. Up to one-fifth of union members in battleground states are NRA members, and union leaders are not afraid of the NRA’s money. They are afraid of agitating their own pro-gun members in key swing races. With third parties rarely viable, it’s a zero-sum game on Election Day. If pro-gun voters are wary of the Democrats, they’ll vote Republican.

It is conventional wisdom among Democratic Party insiders that strong support for gun control has backfired, mobilizing NRA supporters and costing them elections in key swing races. They believe that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election because he was on the wrong side on guns. To counteract that, in 2004 the patrician John Kerry ridiculously trumpeted his own prowess as a gun owner.

The insider wisdom is right – to a point. Yes, touting gun control is politically dangerous for Democrats. But it’s not because the NRA is such a potent lobbying force or has so much campaign cash.

The real problem is that the very nature of our two-party, winner-take-all elections allows a small faction of gun control opponents – just like anti-Castro diehards in Florida – to form a potent voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status.

American pundits often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as Israel and Italy, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold hostage their coalition governments. They fail to see how the dynamics of our own system allow well-organized political minorities to push their agendas on the mainstream – and make America resistant to many vital reforms.