Why Do Gun Rights Advocates Have More Political Firepower? Intensity or Efficacy and Social Networks?

Now that the manhunt in Boston has ended, observers are taking one last look at the failure of gun control proposals in the Senate. I will not linger on dubious claims by Stuart Stevens, Maureen Dowd and others that President Obama should have been able to win 60 votes via more adept arm-twisting, deal-making and speechifying. Pundits’ abiding belief in Presidential omnipotence seems immune to the evidence assembled by scholars like George Edwards and Frances Lee that Chief Executives’ ability to affect the votes cast by Members of Congress is limited and that Presidents’ embrace of a policy may repel legislators as much as it attracts them.

More interesting is commentators’ explanation of the defeat of a proposal 90% of Americans favored by noting the greater “intensity” on the gun rights side. Perhaps ,”intensity trumps popularity”. Maybe gun control is “an idiosyncratic issue in which the intensity is all on the side of the opponents”, as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza suggests. The strong position of the NRA in this case does require some explanation, since beyond the factors unique to the Senate that impeded passage of gun control including the filibuster and the extreme overrepresentation of small,rural states, reports suggested that the House was even less supportive of efforts to control firearms.

Certainly, elected officials hear far more from the gun rights side of the debate, even when it is badly outnumbered. There may well be more passion on the pro-gun side. Yet in politics it is a mistake to simply infer greater intensity of concern from greater mobilization. Two additional factors should be examined that may help explain why pro-gun advocates are so much better able to mobilize supporters and win the day on Capitol Hill: the demographic characteristics of those on each side of the debate and differences in the extent to which their social networks and activities facilitate their collective action.

Polls tell us something about the characteristics of gun rights supporters and gun owners specifically. If we look at these categories, we see that they are disproportionately white, male and old. Disproportionately white, male and old is a description that fits the Senate and,to a lesser degree, most other American political elites quite well. For example campaign contributors are disproportionately white male, and old too. Gun rights supporters are also more likely to be registered to vote than gun control advocates. So from this standpoint the cause of gun rights gets more of a hearing because it appeals to the kind of citizens who are already comfortable and used to participating in politics.

On the other hand, gun owners are concentrated in rural areas and socially peripheral in that respect. They do not differ greatly in income or level of education from gun control supporters. So while there is some reason to view gun rights supporters and gun owners as a group with demographic attributes that increase their political efficacy, that may not be the whole story.

Instead of viewing gun owners and advocates simply as individuals with some characteristics that predispose them to political action, we should take account of their position in social networks that facilitate collective action in favor of gun rights . I am not talking about Facebook and Twitter either, but actual face-to-face interaction. People often go hunting and target-shooting in groups. Gun enthusiasts assemble at gun shows. There are businesses that cater to gun owners; firearms and ammunition manufacturers and the operators of target ranges and gun shows. It is well-known that firms find it easier to build effective lobbies than do large groups of citizens, but beyond that gun owners’ social activities facilitate organizing. They are embedded in social networks of people with similar views and simply by socializing, engaging in recreational activities or reading publications devoted to their hobbies, they may learn about political efforts that at least some of them are predisposed to support. It’s not an accident that many of the most successful social movements in American history from abolition to Prohibition and the Civil Rights Movement were based in churches. These campaigns piggy-backed on pre-existing social organizations and communities rather than building connections from scratch. Women’s suffrage activists and LGBT rights supporters also could take advantage of the fact that their constituencies spent time together. Union organizers face obstacles, but those they hope to organize work together.

By contrast, gun control supporters have no shared social activities, no common identity and no companies that cater to them. Their jobs don’t bring them together. Unlike gun rights advocates’ they don’t find and stay in touch with each other without a conscious and sustained effort to do so. Under these conditions, it is not surprising to find far more effective mobilization of sentiment on the gun rights side. So even if there was significant intensity of feeling on the part of a sizable minority of gun control advocates,(say 10% of the 90% favoring background checks) we should expect them to have greater difficulty in channeling those feelings and building durable political organizations.

This does not mean gun control advocates can never prevail. The last time gun control advocates won the day on Capitol Hill, the 103rd Congress (1993-1994) which saw the passage of the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban, there was unified Democratic government and crime rates were far higher than they are today. Perhaps if those conditions recur gun control advocates will make gains, despite their disadvantages in mobilizing. The slow decline in gun ownership may one day weaken the NRA’s hand as well.

Yet all in all, the structural and sociological factors working in favor of the gun rights side seem fairly durable, while the memories of the horrific Newtown shooting will continue to fade. In the short and medium term, claims that the NRA overreached and gained a Phyrric victory seem wishful in the extreme.

13 Responses to Why Do Gun Rights Advocates Have More Political Firepower? Intensity or Efficacy and Social Networks?

  1. FrankB April 21, 2013 at 11:44 pm #

    You are whistling past the gun store. Since the last “assault” weapon ban fiasco the popularity of the AR-15 has soared. This is America’s rifle. It’s easy to handle and relatively inexpensive. It has opened shooting sports to women in ways nothing else has. You should visit a service rifle match where the AR-15 has become the rifle of choice and see how well the 15 and 16 year old girls shoot. Pre AR-15 the choices were man sized and expensive to own and operate .30 caliber rifles that kicked like mules.

  2. wikileaks April 22, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    Oh, now here’s a really helpful explanation.

    So what are gun control advocates supposed to go out and do now, amend the U.S. Constitution to change the apportionment of the Senate?!

    LOL! More supremely unhelpful political science. Where’s Senator Coburn when you need him?

  3. Ken Sherrill April 22, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    What’s your evidence to support this statement:

    “LGBT rights supporters also could take advantage of the fact that their constituencies spent time together.”?

  4. Joel April 22, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    um, money?

    (what else do old, white males have disproportionately?).

  5. KMF April 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    As an NRA member who like a solid majority of NRA members support background checks, we have come to the conclusion that LaPierre & the Board no longer speak or represent us.
    They clearly represent the gun manufacturers & a fragmented but committed gun dealers lobby.
    The mere fact that you can not recognize this crystal clear truth & are obtuse to it’s ramifications is disturbing on many levels.

    • NRAenemy List April 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Exactly. LaPierre and the Board have turned a grassroots organization into an astroturf organization. Background checks, making straw purchases illegal, making gun trafficking a crime will all decrease the number of illegal guns. But gun manufacturers have ZERO interest in the loss of business — especially as individual gun ownership is on the decline.

      There is no threat to hunters. There is no threat to ranchers and farmers. There is no threat to law abiding citizens.

  6. zztyc April 22, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Wow, it’s remarkable that you fail to mention, among all sorts of other reasons, the plausible explanation that having an organized lobby (aka the NRA) has, along with NRA campaign contributions, may have played a key role.

    Even if you don’t believe this explanation has much weight, it’s a pretty obvious variable to consider, especially since you consider individual donors.

    • NRAenemy List April 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

      Good point. Watch for a counterbalance to the NRA to emerge.

  7. Russell B from UCLA April 22, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    I’ll elevate the better angels of my nature and refrain from heaping steaming piles of well-deserved scorn on this “America’s rifle” nonsense. (And, yes, Commenter FrankB, after two decades in the Army, including an Iraq tour, I’m rather familiar with the Mighty Mattel and its various-and-sundry evolutions, full- and semi-automatic.)

    There’s a related social media venue you’re not taking as much account of as (IMO) you might, David: what one might call “closed-circuit” print media.

    I’ve done an (admittedly informal) survey of 40 years of the leading gun enthusiast magazines (namely, The American Rifleman, Guns & Ammo, and Gun Digest), and I have observed that nary an issue passes without an article detailing the myriad (and largely imaginary) “threats” to gun rights abroad in Liberal-land — most prominently featured on the cover (with exclamation points, ‘natch).

    In essence, the Gun Lobby not only keeps gun aficioados in a near-constant state of paranoia and fear, it transmits a common narrative frame for (mis)understanding the gun rights debate. And, given the close-if-not-incestuous relationship of firearms manufacturers and the NRA and the Gun Owners of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there is rigorous and largely self-enforced message discipline, so that key talking points get endlessly recycled. There is, for example, a 1967 op-ed by the NRA spox in the LA Times (where the NRA was then headquartered) calling into question then-Gov. Reagan’s signature Mulford Act gun control law that, apart from proper nouns makes arguments and claims that are indistinguishable from those one hears from Wayne LaPierre today.

    That the NRA, et al., are clearly stalking horses for the firearms manufacturers is, perhaps, best illustrated by the dog that doesn’t bark — the manufacturers themselves. Can you think of any other industry that would be so conspicuously quiet in the face of highly publicized national legislation that directly impacts its fiscal bottom line? Where are the executives from Remington and Browning and Colt and H&K and etc.? Nowhere to be seen or heard. And why? Because they don’t *need* to be seen or heard — they have LaPierre, a pocketful of gun nut legislators, and well-established glossy magazines that do the work for them, circulating as they do almost exclusively among those Americans already most primed — for the reasons you elucidate above — to receive that messaging.

    • NRAenemy List April 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

      Very well stated. Note the retreat from CA to VA. Don’t be surprised if the NRA has to reestablish its HQ over the next decade as VA becomes more urban and suburban, more highly educated and more diverse — and gun ownership dips to under 20%.

  8. Bear Braumoeller April 23, 2013 at 7:15 am #

    To the list of indicators of intensity, I’d consider adding single-issue voting. The perception (not sure about the reality) is that NRA members’ votes are far more likely to be determined solely by legislators’ positions on gun issues than are those of the average citizen.

  9. NRAenemy List April 23, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    What few talk about, but flows from your accurate description of “old”, “white” and “men” is that the emerging majority in America “urban”, “suburban”, “black”, “hispanic”, “parents”, “women”, “18-29”, “30-49” have gun ownership rates under 25%. “Women”, “18-29”, “black”, hispanic” are all under 16%.

    Nationally, less than a quarter of Americans are hunters.

    The gun sales are going to the gun hoarders, the survivalists, the paranoid and the criminals who can easily purchase an arsenal at a gun show or from the Internet.

    Gun ownership is on the decline and, before long, support will erode quickly and before the NRA and it’s DC lobbyists can retreat from their extreme and untenable position.

    Three important points under score this (1) in the Northeast, where gun ownership is under 20%, states easily passed sweeping legislation this year, (2) compromise legislation like what was offered by Senators Manchin and Toomey (from PA & WV) ultimately passes — even if it takes a few years to do so, and (3) if the NRA is so powerful then why did they fail so miserably in targeted states like NV, OH, PA and VA?

    Want to know part of the reason Reid was able to move? Likely because NV is transforming to an urban/suburban state with a large number of Hispanics and African Americans — in other words a state where gun ownership is declining.

  10. Michael Agosta April 30, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    We relied far too much on social media to lobby. It was disorganized and inchoate.