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What Amy Schumer gets wrong about the power of the gun lobby

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Amy Schumer.
Amy Schumer.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Amy Schumer is justifiably frustrated. Like many educated urbanites horrified by the toll of gun violence in this country, she simply cannot fathom how a majority of our elected representatives could oppose gun control legislation.

Since a gunman fatally killed two people and wounded nine during a Lafayette, Louisiana, screening of Trainwreck (which Schumer wrote and starred in), the Hollywood celebrity has taken on gun control as a personal issue. When asked why the US has failed to pass gun control laws, Schumer's explanation is the same one that many frustrated liberals give. "I think it's money," she said.

Money is not irrelevant, and the National Rifle Association and related groups do spend a lot of it.

But the gun lobby's real power comes from both the asymmetry and the geography of its organized passion. And until gun control supporters truly grasp the depth and breadth of this passion, they will continue to fail in passing gun control legislation.

Organized passion

Depending on how you count it, the NRA has between 3 million and 4.5 million dues-paying members. Very few political organizations have that many members.

Of course, not all these members are passionate activists. But many of them are. And for those members who do take their Second Amendment rights very seriously, freedom to bear arms is their number one, number two, number three, number four, and number five most important issue.

For them, it is a fundamental foundation of their political identity, deeply wrapped up in ideals of patriotism and individual rights. Many of these voters have made it clear that they are single-issue voters, which gives them a good deal of leverage.

There is a reason for this passion. Spend some time watching some of the NRA propaganda videos and related programming, and you might begin to see why. Heck, the emotional pull of those videos even gives me goosebumps and makes me wonder what I'm missing by not owning a gun: "When nothing less than freedom is at stake, we fight. ... Proud defenders of history's patriots..." Like it or not, the NRA has a public approval rating slightly higher than the Supreme Court's.

Nothing the other side has historically mustered has come close to the breadth and depth of this passion. For years, no gun control organization had anywhere near the resources of the NRA. As a result members of Congress heard with rapid and repeated fire from NRA members, over and over again. From the other side, they heard mostly crickets.

That's why for years, members of Congress have taken it as a rule of thumb that if you vote for gun control, you risk abandoning some of your voters. And if you are facing a close election, you can't afford to lose any voters. By contrast, nobody ever got punished electorally for being too soft on guns.

While Michael Bloomberg and others have done an admirable job of building up an organization to put pressure on Congress for gun control, Everytown for Gun Safety has not yet matched the NRA in the force and depth of its grassroots activism. Gun control supporters have not yet demonstrated that they have the same single-issue intensity as their adversaries.

It's possible this could change with a mass movement for gun control. But it would take a pretty big mass movement.

Geography

While support for gun control tends to be concentrated in urban areas, gun owners are spread across the country, especially in more rural states. Because rural states tend to be overrepresented in Congress, particularly in the Senate, this gives the NRA and its allies the ability to put legitimate pressure on a broader share of Congress.

Back in 2013, when the Senate was voting on whether to extend background checks, I looked at the prevalence of state gun businesses and argued that Democratic senators in states with large numbers of gun businesses would be hard-pressed to vote for extending the background checks. I was right. Democratic senators from Montana, Alaska, Arkansas, and North Dakota all voted against the bill. These four states were among the five most gun-business-heavy states in the country. South Dakota is the other, and had Tim Johnson not been about to retire, my guess is he would have also voted against the bill.

The point is simple: It's a big country, and a lot of people love their guns. It's very hard for any party to control the House or the Senate without representing districts or states with a notable share of people who take their Second Amendment rights really, really seriously. And, especially for Democrats, these voters can hold the balance of power.

Why the gun lobby wins

The NRA is, in many respects, a textbook civics organization. It tells its members to participate actively and vociferously in politics — to call their members of Congress, and to vote, and vote loudly. Very few organizations in America can boast this kind of civic engagement.

True, some of this is a result of the NRA having a very large budget, not all of which comes from its members. Gun manufacturers do lend considerable support to the organization.

But money alone cannot explain the gun lobby's success. Members of the NRA and allied groups bring an intensity, volume, asymmetry, and geographic reach of passion that is rare in American politics. Until that is matched on the other side, the gun lobby will continue to win.