How to Change the Gun Debate

Man Inserting Voting Paper into a Ballot Box
Man Inserting Voting Paper into a Ballot Box

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Umpqua Community College, Americans are once again wondering why such incidents don't lead to new gun laws. One reason, of course, is the National Rifle Association. Yet the source of the NRA's influence is often mistakenly believed to be its money and lobbyists. Understanding the real source of the NRA's power, however, highlights how gun control supporters can break the stalemate on guns.

The NRA's piles of money and armies of lobbyists certainly help spread the organization's no-compromises, anti-gun-control message. But elected officials ultimately vote the NRA's way because they believe the NRA can sway voters on Election Day. The NRA's influence, in other words, comes from voters.

After the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore failed to carry his home state of Tennessee in part because of opposition by the NRA, candidates have lived in fear of pro-gun voters. Supporters of strict gun laws ran away from gun control. President Obama, for example, downplayed the issue in both his campaigns, emphasizing instead his support for the Second Amendment.

These candidates recognized that the primary reason gun rights have been ascendant over the past 30 years is because gun enthusiasts are far more politically engaged than gun control proponents. One in five gun owners say they have called, written, or e-mailed a public official about gun laws, compared to 1 in 10 people who don't own a gun. Four percent of non-gun owners have contributed money to an advocacy group working on guns, in contrast to nearly 20 percent of gun owners.

Opponents of gun control are also often single-issue voters; they decide who to vote for based solely on a candidate's position on guns.

Support for gun control, by contrast, has been broad but not deep. While many people tell pollsters they support effective new gun laws, like universal background checks, few actually make gun control the sole issue determining their vote.

This was evident when Congress last considered gun control, in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Polls showed 90 percent in favor of universal background checks but the measure failed, losing the support of key swing-state Democrats. As Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota explained, calls to her office from constituents were "at least 7 to 1 against that bill." Someone who goes through the effort of calling about guns is likely to vote on guns.

Candidates kowtow to the NRA because the gun group can mobilize voters in tight races. In close elections, being able to turn out even two or three percent of voters makes a huge difference.

If supporters of gun control want to change the gun debate, they answer is easy: vote for gun control.

When gun control groups can plausibly threaten to mobilize two or three percent of voters, the NRA will be neutralized.

The political environment is becoming increasingly favorable to gun control supporters. Although the gun debate has stalled in Congress, since Newtown we've seen many reforms adopted at the state level. Colorado, Washington, California, Maryland, New York, Connecticut and other states have tried to fill the gaps left open by Congress by strengthening background checks and restricting access to especially lethal weaponry.

These reforms didn't just occur because lawmakers were horrified by Newtown. They also happened because lawmakers thought that passing new gun control laws would not hurt them in the next election.

After gun advocates successfully recalled two state senators who voted for reform in Colorado, it appeared the lawmakers were wrong. But the next year, both seats were won back by pro-control candidates, one of whom used to work with the gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

More and more lawmakers are starting to question the NRA's influence in purple states. Sens. Tim Kaine (Virginia), Ben Nelson (Florida), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) keep winning elections despite F grades from the NRA.

Although 2014 was a bad year for Democrats at the polls, pro-gun control candidates scored notable victories. In Virginia, the NRA's home state, Terry McAuliffe was elected governor despite his embrace of gun control. He publicized his failing grade from the NRA. Guns were also a major issue in gubernatorial elections in Colorado and Connecticut, both won by supporters of gun control.

Demographics are also in gun control's corner. The white rural voters who make up the core of the NRA's constituency are dwindling. Meanwhile, Latinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in America, are among the strongest supporters of strict gun laws. Don't be surprised to soon see campaign ads targeting candidates with high NRA ratings for endangering your children -- in Spanish.

Outside of electoral politics, gun control advocates have already proven that there is a grassroots constituency waiting to be mobilized. Using social media and targeted boycotts, Moms Demand Action brought consumer pressure on national chains like Starbucks, Target, Chili's, and Sonic to force them to take a stand against guns in their stores.

Those consumers are also voters, which is why every major Democratic candidate for president has come out strongly in favor of gun control. Future presidential hopeful Andrew Cuomo even called for a shutdown of the federal government until new gun laws are passed. Politicians are losing their fear that being vocal on this issue will cost them on Election Day.

Now it is up to voters who favor gun control to match the political engagement of gun control's opponents. It's not enough to demand reform. People have to vote for it.