The NRA is scum.
With that caveat out of the way, liberals really need to rethink the knee-jerk blame we pile on top of that scum. If we want to pass sensible gun legislation, we’ve got to understand what’s really in the way: Our representatives.
But the representatives are in the NRA’s pocket, right? They get paid big money to block any type of gun control, no matter how rational and noninvasive! The NRA is a powerful lobbying group that essentially legally bribes legislators for political support.
Surprise: Not really.
It might shock you to learn that GOP obstructionism isn’t about money. And it’s not about blackmail or dirty politicians. Well, not entirely. Of course many politicians are dirty, and of course many wield their power as leverage to get stuff they want, such as money from powerful lobbyists. The central reason for their behavior, however, is much more simple: Votes. (And if you insist on clinging to your cynicism, I give you the wisdom of Scarface: First you get the votes; then you get the power; then you get the money.)
And guess who those voters are? That’s right: Right-wing jerks. But here’s the good news: Ninety percent of Americans support background checks, so the happy truth is that we can in fact send candidates to Washington who will finally do something to change our gun laws. The sad truth is we don’t seem to want to. This isn’t the NRA’s fault. It’s our fault.
Let’s break this down.
The NRA does not, as Jimmy Kimmel once so felicitously put it, “have the GOP’s balls in a money clip.” At least not literally. The NRA might indeed spend money on compliant legislators, but it doesn’t even rank in the top fifty in terms of lobbying spending. And those numbers are from 2016, an election year. The Washington Post recently tallied the NRA has given a total $3.5 million to people currently serving in Congress. Since 1998. Total.
For a concrete election example, in 2014, an election year, the NRA gave about $1 million to GOP Senator PACs. That same year, the NRA raised a total of $67 million. The numbers are even more telling at an individual level. Vox reported that GOP Senator John Cornyn, a hard-right gun-rights tool from my state of residence, Texas, has over the past decade received $30,000 from the NRA. Decade. In the election year mentioned above, 2014, the NRA actually gave Cornyn more money than it did any other GOP senator: $9,900. That same year, Cornyn raised $14 million. Exxon gave him $57,000, more than six times the NRA’s contribution, which, remember, was the most it gave any Senator that year. The NRA wasn’t even among Cornyn’s top 15 donors.
The GOP might indeed pay a price for crossing the NRA, but it’s not a literal price. Which brings us to the next myth.
To be sure, the NRA pays politicians. And to be sure, those politicians, who are overwhelmingly Republicans, vote the way the NRA wants them to vote. But that isn’t necessarily because the NRA wants them to vote that way. It’s really because their base wants them to vote that way.
First, that Washington Post stat about campaign spending cited above is a little misleading. It counts only direct contributions, and the NRA doesn’t only pay its pols directly. The group spends far more in indirect support, as this New York Times piece rightly points out. When you take into account indirect spending on campaigns, on things such as ads, the NRA spends many millions more.
Though this might seem like the group does indeed bribe politicians with election spending, these aren’t bribes. More accurately, it’s the opposite: They’re threats.
Let’s look at Cornyn again.
Why would the NRA only give Cornyn $9,900 in direct contributions, as compared to Exxon’s $57,000? Because they know Texas gunowners wield the power. It should go without saying that most people don’t withhold votes from candidates because of how they vote on the finer points of energy policy. Exxon knows this, too. Same with the other major lobbying groups, such as the pharmaceuticals. If a group can’t depend entirely on the people to put favorable legislators into power or energetically support favorable policies, that group has to find other, secondary ways to wield influence. Hence the major direct spending.
The NRA doesn’t pay GOP candidates such as Cornyn directly because it doesn’t have to. Payment of that kind is the recourse of the politically weak. The NRA pays its candidates in the primary political currency: Votes. In this light, that indirect spending, such as ad buys, isn’t actually a bribe. That spending goes to rally voter support or smear candidates, and because gun rights are such a major issue, especially for GOP voters, this can make or break election chances.
The NRA is well aware of this. Chris Cox, a prominent NRA lobbyist, made this threat overtly on network television, saying that GOP politicians who don’t support NRA policies will “pay a price.” Not the inverse. And they’ll pay that price at the most valuable place: the ballot.
You might rightly point out that the most red-meat pols come from the most reliably red-meat areas (Cornyn, for instance), but even these legislators are far from safe: The NRA can and will throw its weight behind candidates to primary unfavorable politicians from the right. It also takes us to the nexus of all our political woes: bastards and gerrymandering.
Yes, the problem is, once again, American representative democracy. More specifically, it’s a voting bloc that comprises people who, though many aren’t single-issue gun-rights voters, flat-out will not support a candidate who in turn doesn’t support their insane ideas of gun rights. To describe these voters I’ve coined the phrase “bastards.” They’re Americans, and they’re the ones who dictate whether we can pass laws that ban the kinds of guns used to commit what the President coined in his inaugural address as “American carnage.”
Not coincidentally, bastards also put that guy in the White House.
Gallup has done some excellent polling on gun rights. The mechanisms driving these numbers are complex and obscure, but it boils down to a small group of Americans holding the majority hostage. Though 60% of Americans as polled would like to see stricter gun laws, that’s nowhere near the all-time high. Under the first Bush administration into the first years of Clinton’s that number was much higher, as high as 78% under Bush. Also, that latest Gallup poll was taken three days after the most deadly shooting in U.S. history.
According to Gallup, the 2016 election cycle had a major influence on our views about gun rights. In January 2016, 34% of Americans said they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with gun laws. By the same time the next year, after Trump’s election and a couple weeks before the inauguration, that number had jumped to 42%. And not all the people who answered they were “dissatisfied” with current laws wanted stricter laws: A full one-third of them want LESS STRICT gun laws. Trump’s approval rating, you’ll notice, also seems to vacillate between 40% and 33%.
All told, according to Gallup, 52% of Americans are either satisfied with the status quo or want less strict laws. Yet according to that poll, somehow 60% of Americans want stricter gun laws, and 90% of us support universal background checks. This means that a whole lot of Americans are susceptible to NRA propaganda, and they act on it at the ballot box.
The NRA wields the people, not the purse.
I want to end this with a few stats about the assault weapons ban.
Those high pro-gun rights numbers cited above from the early 1990s led Congress to enact a bipartisan assault weapons and high-capacity magazine (HCM) ban in 1994, which lasted until 2004. During that decade, not coincidentally, the number of Americans who wanted stricter gun laws declined. Gun laws were already fairly strict. In that decade, the yearly average of mass shootings didn’t really decline from 1982. It seems the U.S. has a baseline of about 1.1 mass shootings per year. This held true from 1982 – 1994, as well as 1994 – 2004.
Seen that way, one could say the assault weapons ban had no effect. But it did. Oh hell yes it did. Not on the number of shootings, but on the lethality of those shootings.
Between 1982 and 1994 there were three mass shootings that resulted in ten or more deaths, with a total of 58 deaths. Between 1994 and 2004 there was only one such event: Columbine. Thirteen deaths.
What’s more, in the decade we banned assault weapons/HCMS, the U.S. saw exactly zero, ZERO, of the ten worst mass shootings in our recent history. (Source for these stats.) In the 22 years between 1982 and 2004 there were four mass shooting events that resulted in ten or more deaths. But between 1994 and 2004, when we banned assault weapons/HCMs, there was only one such event (Columbine).
More: In the 12 years after the ban was lifted, U.S. mass shootings jumped from about 1.1 per year to 3.5 per year.
And they got much more deadly: In the 12 or so years since the assault weapons/HCM ban was lifted there have been 28 major mass shootings, NINE of which resulted in the deaths of more than ten people, as compared to the one such event during the ban.
And get this: Just one of those shootings, the massacre in Las Vegas last October, resulted in more deaths than the three major shootings between 1982 and 1992 combined.
Those numbers are absolutely insane.
So do a majority of Americans really support stricter gun control? We certainly don’t seem to be putting our votes where our hearts are. Polls are one thing. Propaganda another. Stop falling for the NRA’s trick: It’s not the politicians. It’s us.