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.