On (the lack of) Gun Control Laws: How Much is the NRA to Blame?

This is a reblog of one of Nate’s posts from January of 2011 in response to the Gabby Giffords shooting.  I think it’s germane to the present conversation.  And for the record, this is not an endorsement of the NRA by any means, just an attempt to clarify what political science has to say about interest groups in general and their effects on the passage of legislation.


Following the horrific events in Tucson last Saturday, it is little surprise that Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and several other members of Congress are moving to re-instate several gun control measures.  Meanwhile,  gun sales went up dramatically this past week, in part due to paranoid anticipation that gun control measures will pass.  So how likely is gun control reform?  Not very.  And don’t go blaming interest groups, either.

The core part of Rep. McCarthy’s proposal would ban high capacity clips for handguns (like the 33 bullet clip used in the attack by Loughner).  This is not a new policy, but would re-instate one facet of the so-called Brady Bill, which Congress passed in 1994 (which was allowed to expire in 2004).  And Rep. McCarthy’s not the only one introducing changes to the current gun laws.  Rep. Peter King (R-NY) bravely wants to leave the gun laws alone, he just doesn’t want the damn things anywhere near him.  In the Senate, both Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) have expressed interest in introducing similar bills in the Senate.

So, to recap: you’ve got bi-partisan support for some measure of gun control laws (however modest) in both chambers of Congress, and Sen. Lugar’s status as an elder statesman in the Senate should really help forge a winning coalition.  For gun control supporters, so far, so good, right?

Not so much.  The Republican advantage in the House is certainly not helping anything, and John Boehner has expressed no interest in putting anything on the agenda.  Moreover, Rep. McCarthy has found that few members of her own party are lining up behind her.    According to her, the reason is:

The NRA.  They have a lot of power down here, and a lot of members here are petrified of them, that they will basically go against them in an election and make that member lose.

As satisfying as it is to attribute blame to some nefarious, shadowy interest group, there’s not a lot of evidence to validate Rep. McCarthy’s explanation.   Simply put, there’s not support for her policy in Congress because there’s not a lot of support in the country.

Despite popular conception, the capital interest groups wield most effectively isn’t in the form of campaign contributions, but in information.  Hall and Deardorff’s model of lobbying as subsidy argues that by lending policy expertise to members of Congress, interest groups allow Congressional staff to focus on other issues.  The kernel of the argument is that interest groups do not change any member’s minds.  Their resources are too scarce to lobby opponents of an issue.  Rather, they focus their efforts on members of Congress who are ‘on board’ but may be otherwise unable to devote time to the issue.  That is, interest groups do not change the things on a member’s “to do list.”  They just let her get to more items on that list. 

This is the important point (as if the italics didn’t make it obvious):  The NRA, though it is exceptionally powerful (and it is), would still not be able to suppress the interests of populace if there was considerable support for renewed gun control initiatives.  The problem for Rep. McCarthy and her allies: there’s very little public support for limiting access to guns. 

Gallup shows pretty convincingly that support for gun control has waned substantially over the previous 20 years, even in the face of other violent shootings.  Remember, this period includes the Jonesboro middle school shooting in 1998, the Columbine massacre in 1999, the Beltway Sniper Attacks in 2002, the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 and the Northern Illinois shooting of 2008 (and I’m sure I’m leaving some out).  The only attack that had an appreciable effect on public opinion was the Columbine massacre, and even it had little long term effect on popular support.  It seems that we can add the Tucson shootings to the list of events we find terrifying and awful, but we won’t use to to reconsider our policy stances on gun laws.  As Ben Smith writes, nearly 70% of respondents to a CNN/ORC poll said that their gun control opinions were uneffected by the Arizona shootings.

Maybe Rep. McCarthy will be able to convince her colleagues to reform the gun laws, and reinstate some of the initaitives in the Brady Bill.  To me, however, it looks like she’s going to have to be in Congress for a long time before she is able to get the same traction on the issue that she did back in 1993.

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2 Responses to On (the lack of) Gun Control Laws: How Much is the NRA to Blame?

  1. Pingback: Gun Control is Unlikely in this Congress: Here’s Why | Rule 22

  2. Pingback: Gun Control is Unlikely in this Congress – The Glebe Street Hacks

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