A key challenge for gun policy reflects the asymmetric passions of the two sides. The National Rifle Association and its allies hold unpopular views in the country at-large. Yet they want it more. They are more passionate, more organized, and more focused on promoting their agenda than the majority of Americans who oppose them. Link that with our legislative structures that magnify the influence of rural areas most likely to hold pro-NRA views, and you see where this is going.

Right now, because of Newtown and related atrocities, there is a window of opportunity for people who feel passionately on the other side. Yet we all know that this window of opportunity may quickly close. The public spotlight and the newspaper headlines will soon move to the debt ceiling or other matters. Americans will still be sad and angry about the continuing toll of gun violence. Yet these feelings are unlikely to translate into effective legislative action.

durbin presser

Unless that is, the more liberal side on gun policy finds new innovative strategies.

Over at CNN.com. my University of Chicago colleagues Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig offer an intriguing suggestion:

The key for gun control proponents is to figure out how to turn people’s willingness to take a single action in a moment into an effortless and sustainable long-term commitment.

Here’s one way to defeat the NRA: Ask people who are upset about this recent shooting to go online and sign up for automatic, monthly deductions to a fund devoted to breaking the grip of the NRA.

For every dollar the NRA spends in helping a political candidate, this new fund would spend $2 to help the opponent (whether in a primary race or general election). Many politicians are currently afraid that opposing the NRA would lead the organization to stop providing their campaigns with either cash contributions or in-kind support (such as advertisements and other forms of advocacy). Creating a fund that guaranteed a two-to-one match of NRA support — but for the other side, ideally who supports stronger gun control — would weaken the NRA’s political clout.

And how much should gun control proponents ask people to pledge? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent about $20 million on political activities in the 2012 election cycle; including a little more than $1 million on direct campaign contributions and around $8.5 million on independent campaigns in support of congressional candidates.

Will this work? I don’t know. There is a static quality to their analysis that bears watching. If liberal groups go head-to-head with the NRA, conservatives are sure to follow. A different kind of arms race may well ensue.

I hope Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, or some similar wealthy gun control advocate takes this seriously. Much conventional political conversation reflects the conventional wisdom of the 1990s: Gun control is simply too toxic. That may be an outdated view….

Political pros in both parties blame Democrats’ 1994 losses on the NRA. That experience has understandably chilled many Democrats’ ardor to press gun issues. Yet almost twenty years have passed. Republicans have solidly won previously-contested rural areas. Meanwhile, Republicans need to win back socially moderate suburban voters who might be repelled by efforts to loosen restrictions on high-capacity magazines. So Democrats have less to lose through support for gun control. America has become a more urban society. The percentage of Americans who own guns has declined. We elected (and reelected) a president named Barack Hussein Obama.

The vibe seems different now, too. After the Aurora shootings, I was in a public meeting with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. He was asked if anything would be done. He said no. After all, we had recently endured a congresswoman being shot in the face with no resulting action. Durbin sounded much more optimistic at a press conference yesterday (see my clunky iPhone pic above) regarding the possibilities for effective legislative action.

Increasing numbers of Americans, across the ideological spectrum, realize that an absolutist stance on the Second Amendment is producing too many gun homicides. We need fresh thinking—not just about new policies, but also about new political and organizing strategies to change gun safety. Ethan and Jens’s ideas here deserve broader discussion.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.