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Here's the real reason we don't have gun reform (it's not campaign contributions)

The NRA's power does not come from giving House members $1,000 checks. It comes from its organized passion, and the lack of it on the other side.

Buttons are given away at the NRA booth during the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC.
Buttons are given away at the NRA booth during the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If you've been on Twitter in the past 24 hours or so, you've probably seen one of the many tweets from ThinkProgress editor Igor Volsky, who has been listing the National Rifle Association's campaign contributions to members of Congress, often alongside the members' generic "thoughts and prayers" messages in the wake of the horrific shooting in San Bernardino.


Most of his tweets have been retweeted thousands of times. And his message is resonating for a reason: It's simple and easy to grasp. The NRA and its allies have bought off Republicans in Congress. If not for the NRA's wealth of campaign spending, Republicans would be supporting tougher gun law.

The problem is this message is too simple. And buying it as the prevailing explanation ignores the hard work of organizing that gun control advocates need to do in order to win.

Money is not irrelevant, and the NRA and related groups do spend a lot of it. But even if the NRA and other gun groups didn't spend a dime on campaigns, they would still be in a very powerful position for two reasons:

  1. The NRA and its allies have millions of dedicated single-issue voters who are deeply passionate about their Second Amendment rights; gun control advocates do not.

  2. Rural and suburban areas with higher rates of gun ownership and deeper passion for the Second Amendment are overrepresented in Congress.

Gun rights advocates are better organized and more passionate

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. And there are ever more aggressive large-scale groups like Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights for those who think the NRA is too much of a squish.

For those members who do take their Second Amendment rights very seriously, freedom to bear arms is their No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 most important issue. As Grover Norquist once put it, "It is an issue where intensity trumps preference ... for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."

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.

Liberals often fail to understand the passion that motivates these voters. But spend some time watching some of the NRA propaganda videos and related programming, and you might begin to understand. Heck, the emotional pull of those videos even gives me goose bumps 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 still has a public approval rating slightly higher than the Supreme Court's.

Nothing the other side has mustered historically 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.

One reason for this disparity is that gun owners benefit from being in "social networks that facilitate collective action in favor of gun rights," as political scientist David Karol has astutely explained (his italics). "People often go hunting and target-shooting in groups. Gun enthusiasts assemble at gun shows. There are businesses that cater to gun owners." In short, it's easy for gun owners to find one another, build personal networks, and mobilize for political action. Supporters of gun control don't have that same sense of community and no obvious way to build it.

Moreover, gun supporters vote at higher rates than non–gun owners. According to one survey, 51 percent of those who wanted to protect gun rights were registered to vote, compared with 45 percent of those who supported gun control. As Karol also notes, gun owners are "disproportionately white, male and old" — the type of people who tend to have most influence in politics, largely because they participate the most actively.

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. By contrast, nobody ever got punished electorally for being too soft on guns. So why take a chance?

While former New York City mayor 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 that this might change as the steady toll of mass shootings builds a sense of crisis. But even so, that sense of crisis will have to move beyond the readership of ThinkProgress and into Republican districts, where single-issue gun control voters can put equivalent pressure on lawmakers and threaten to vote for the Democrats if Republicans don't support gun control.

Geographic representation benefits gun rights advocates

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.

Moreover, as Steven Hill and Rob Richie have noted, the NRA also has an advantage in the House. They points out that few swing districts are up for grabs each year (usually about 7 percent of all seats), and most tend to be in rural or suburban places where gun enthusiasm is high enough to potentially hold the balance of power.

In short, 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 there's no comparable counterweight of voters who support gun control strongly enough that they are willing to vote on that single issue.

Don't mourn — organize

It's fine to fulminate about the campaign contributions. But a Twitter shaming, even one as large-scale as Volsky's impressive venture, is no substitute for organization. As I look down Volsky's list, I see politician after politician representing districts and states that are heavily Republican and/or have high rates of gun ownership. The implicit counterfactual — that these members would support gun control if not for the $1,000 they received from the NRA — seems unlikely to me.

For those who have had enough of gun violence and want to pass reforms, the key to political success is the same as it has always been: organization.

Gun control supporters may win in opinion polls, but they don't win in politics because they are not organized in the way gun enthusiasts are. They need to move beyond retweeting campaign contributions and instead start building beyond their core network. Otherwise, they will continue to get rolled in Congress.

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