How to Make the Gun Extremists Pay the Price for Their Votes

Back in October I wrote that the the activist left spends far too much of its time and energy on protest, petition and visibility campaigns and far too little on nuts-and-bolts electoral organizing. I provided our failure to enact commonsense gun control as an object lesson: the public broadly supports gun control, but the NRA has the voter mobilization power to protect and unseat legislators, while MoveOn.org and the Brady Campaign do not.

Washington Monthly alum Kevin Drum responded that it would be misleading to take my thesis at face value because while the pro-gun extremists are a numerical minority, they care about the issue far more than do those who support gun control.

Drum is correct, of course, insofar it goes. But left unspoken is why such a strong disparity in motivation exists, and how to rectify it. The first and most obvious point is that gun owners are most directly impacted by gun control and have the most incentive to be passionate about their issue. This is true, but that hasn’t stopped the country’s legislative majority from running roughshod over the interests of, say, the nation’s marijuana users who are equally passionate about their issue and pose far less of a threat to their communities. The second obvious point is that some gun rights are protected by the 2nd Amendment. But that’s also an incomplete answer, as the 1st and 4th amendments have been subject to legislative meddling, revision and eroding as the nation has grown larger and more complex. Surely a nation determined to act on the issue could find a way to do so within the bounds of the 2nd Amendment’s call for a well-regulated militia. It’s clear that the majority of Americans who actively want greater gun control legislation simply lack the the political will to accomplish its desires in the face of an increasingly dangerous, motivated minority.

Traditional political persuasion won’t do the trick. Gun owners aren’t about to be moved by the death and violence their policies have wrought. The number of gun owners in America has actually been declining since the 1970s. Today only approximately 3 in 10 households have a firearm, compared to nearly half of households a few decades ago. But sales of firearms have skyrocketed upwards. About 36 million households in America have approximately 340 million guns, which means that a large of number gun owners are stockpiling arsenals and massive collections. These are not people who are going to be reasoned with. They have to be defeated politically with a mobilized force of voters:

As David Roberts correctly notes:

If there are ever to be gun laws passed in the US, any kind of policy response to the rising tide of mass shootings, it will be because the people who want it amass the political power to overwhelm the power of the gun lobby. It will be because they organize and deploy more intensity, money, and votes than their opponents. More mass shootings are not going to do the job for them.

The question is how to mobilize that intensity and those votes. There is no reason to believe that national television advertising or visibility campaigns will do the trick. People either believe that greater gun control is needed or they don’t: this is not an issue on which voters are highly persuadable.

The simple reality is that most voters who favor gun control end up going to the voting booth with other issues at the top of mind: the economy, healthcare, taxes, education, the size of government, war and peace, etc. Gun control isn’t really at the top of the priority list–and most Democratic groups in competitive races try to keep it that way in order to avoid the interference of the NRA in their particular battle.

The only way to change that dynamic would be for a heavily funded group with an interest in ousting pro-gun extremists, to leverage a significant field and targeted advertising investment in as many specific races as they have a budget for, with the specific goal of bringing the gun control to the top of voters’ minds as election day approaches. Said organizations should make it their principal objective to make examples of legislators as an object lesson for other legislators across the country. They should not be in the business of buying national TV ads, doing petition drives, organizing protests or staging visibility events. They should be in the nuts-and-bolts business of ruining the electoral prospects of a few specific NRA lackeys by raising the motivation and awareness of pro-gun-control voters during election season.

If anything has a shot of changing the dynamic on gun legislation, that’s would it would take. It’s doable. There just has to be the political will among activist organizers and donors to make it happen, and an increase in voter intensity on the issue will follow.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.