Polls Show Declining Power of Gun Lobby
by Democratic Courage, Fri Apr 27, 2007 at 06:17:10 AM EDT
Gun Lobby's Declining Pull
By Glenn Hurowitz
Even in the wake of a shooting as horrific as the Virginia Tech massacre, the gun lobby still looms very large in Washington. Neither the congressional leadership nor any of the leading presidential candidates have indicated that they're going to bring up gun control legislation that could prevent guns from getting into the hands of people like Cho Seung-Hui - or the criminals who used guns to kill 11,624 Americans in 2004 alone. "I hope there's not a rush to do anything," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
It's not that most Democrats think that common sense gun control measures don't make sense. It's that they've bought into the notion (peddled aggressively by the National Rifle Association) that any support at all for gun control is political suicide.
It's an old Washington trick: if you can't win a policy debate on the merits, convince politicians that a certain policy will help them get elected. And the NRA has been a master at this gambit. During the 12 years in which Republicans controlled Congress, lots of pro-gun candidates won big with the NRA's vocal support.
But are those victories actually attributable to the gun issue - or were there other factors at work as well?
Public opinion data suggests that the gun lobby has played only a very small role in determining election outcomes; indeed, there's a strong indication that support for reasonable gun control measures actually boosts performance at the polls, even in relatively conservative districts.
Polls show that support for stronger gun control is and has always been strong.
Even in the South, the Rocky Mountain region, and rural areas, where gun ownership is most common, support for gun control is high: there's no geographical region of the United States where fewer than two thirds of people support stricter gun laws. Even 57 percent of rural Americans support them.
Perhaps that's because gun owners are as aware as other Americans of the need to make sure that criminals can't get their hands on weapons and that cop killer bullets and assault rifles aren't necessary for hunting. As President Clinton famously observed, deer don't wear bulletproof vests. Indeed, support for gun control is only 13 percent lower among gun owners than the general population.
It's doubtful that even many hard core gun supporters are actually willing to cross party lines based on that one issue: like other voters, they tend to make up their minds based on a candidate's party affiliation (Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats), economic conditions, and a candidate's personal characteristics, and not primarily on a candidate's issue positions. It's true that there are some voters who will switch their votes on the basis of the gun control issue, but gun supporters are largely cancelled out by ardent gun opponents. Support for gun control has helped Democrats make gains among formerly Republican suburbanites, especially women.
To be sure, the NRA does consistently manage to outspend and out-organize the gun control movement. In 2006, it spent between three and four million dollars to elect its candidates, more than 20 times what its opponents were able to muster.
Perhaps its strategy is best summarized by a 1993 memo that was leaked to the press: "We may not win a particular election but our methods have an extremely efficient `political cost exchange ratio' making it exceedingly expensive, difficult and unpleasant for the target to remain in office," the memo said. "Victory springs from imparting excruciating political pain in unrelenting political attacks on a single politician as an example to others."
But its ability to inflict that kind of pain has actually declined significantly since those words were written. Due to a decade of financial mismanagement and decreased attention to gun issues with the rise of terrorism concerns, the NRA is only directly contributing about half of what it once did. Meanwhile, total spending on politics has grown massively, meaning that the NRA's relative impact is far smaller than it once was. The NRA was at one point the fifth biggest spender on politics of any industry or organization; it's now dropped out of the top fifty. The Humane Society of America (a sometimes NRA opponent) is now spending more on politics than the NRA.
Partly as a result, the NRA's ability to swing elections to its candidates is quite weak, and it never was that strong in the first place. In the 2006 elections, out of its top 81 races, it won only 42 percent; in the 11 races where it spent the lion's share of the money, it lost nine of them, including gubernatorial elections in Colorado and Wisconsin, where gun ownership rates are among the highest in the country.
These data come down to one thing: Democrats can start considering the merits of gun control and not just its politics.
Glenn Hurowitz, president of Democratic Courage.com, is the author of Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party.