The pattern is now depressingly familiar. After a horrific mass shooting Republican politicians rush to preemptively scold anybody with the temerity to suggest that the days following a murderous firearm enabled spree might be a good time to discuss regulating firearms. However, with each shooting these pious Republican scolds have less traction; and the discussion about gun regulation gets a little bit more. Inevitably the punditry than tell the American people that due to the extraordinary power of the NRA, gun regulation is extremely unlikely if not impossible.
The NRA is indeed a powerful organization that represents gun manufacturers and others who profit from selling weapons to the American people rather than American citizens seeking to own a gun for hunting or home defense. It is also very easy to overstate the influence and power of the NRA. As our politics have become more partisan, the NRA has become increasingly close to the Republican Party. Today the NRA is powerful, but primarily because the GOP controls both houses of congress. Because of the NRA, any Republican politician who does not strongly oppose gun regulations may have to face a difficult primary; and most Republicans will receive assistance from the NRA in close races, but the NRA has little influence over Democrats.
In 2016, 99% of the contributions from the NRA’s PAC went to Republican candidates, while more than 95% of the money they spent on independent expenditures was in support of Republican candidates, including Donald Trump. In 2008, 22% of the NRA PAC’s contributions went to Democrats. In the last eight years, the NRA has transitioned from being a PAC that was more sympathetic to the GOP, to being almost a part of the Republican Party. This is demonstrated not just by where NRA donations are going, but in the organization’s devolution from one that advocated for American gun owners to one that traffics in far right politics and fear mongering. Because of all this, the NRA’s real or perceived power lies in its ability to influence the outcome of Republican primaries. In most districts support for reasonable gun regulations would not cost a Republican member his or her reelection bid against a Democrat, but that position would make them vulnerable in a primary. It is the fear these Republicans have of losing primaries that ensures that Americans can get a semi-automatic weapon more easily than they can rent a car.
This was not always the case, as recently as 2009 when President Barack Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses, he was unable to pass meaningful gun regulation because there were some NRA allies among the Democrats in congress. If the Democrats ever win back control of Congress and the White House, they will not face that problem again. Gun regulations have become another issue that breaks on partisan lines. The number of voters who have a mix of opinions on guns and other issues or who are progressive on most issues, but oppose gun regulations has decreased in recent years. Moreover, the number of those voters who live in competitive congressional districts is even smaller. The result of this is that if the Democrats regain control of Congress, the NRA will have very little leverage over them.
Due to the increasing polarization of our politics, compromise between the two parties on gun regulation seems very unlikely. Every week the GOP spends refusing to entertain the idea of reforming our gun laws makes it more likely that when the Democrats get back in power, they will pass strong gun regulations. The NRA has facilitated this by eschewing building relationships across the political spectrum in favor of deepening its ties not just to the GOP, but the most conservative wing of that party.
This has made the politics of gun regulation in America more clear than ever. If you think that any discussion of changing our gun laws is a threat to the constitution, that hunters and sportsmen genuinely have a right to weapons of war, making it more difficult to get a gun will mean only criminals have guns, if everybody has a gun we will all be safe or any of the other increasingly bizarre rationales we hear from the NRA for refusing to revisit our national gun laws, continue to vote Republican. If not, the only way to change this is elect a Democratic congress.
Photo: cc/Michael Vadon