As incident after incident plays out, attempts are made to restrict firearms in some meaningful way. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of at least some of these measures, yet little gets done. Why can’t we pass gun control?
Critics list plenty of reasons, including the power of NRA lobbying and the cowardice of politicians. While I would never underestimate either of these factors, I believe there is another, more powerful dynamic at play, and that these politicians’ electoral calculations may be correct. And the numbers in favor of gun control might be the wrong figures to look at.
Let’s start with a military term, force multipliers. Applied to politics it says that a group can have far greater influence over an election than their numbers imply, if they vote as a bloc.
Thus, in elections most groups split fairly evenly--50-50--with a 60% tilt becoming historic. Let’s see what happens when a group exceeds these figures, from two historic examples.
For years historians sought to explain Fiorello LaGuardia’s first mayoral win in 1933, as a Republican in Tammany controlled, Democratic New York City. Some gave credit to independents, some to switch voters rebelling against machine control.
Yet, in Arthur Mann’s path-breaking analysis, he pointed to another critical factor. Italians, a sizeable voting bloc but hardly the dominant one, gave the Little Flower between 91 and 92 percent of their ballots, depending on district. More than anything else, this gave LaGuardia his victory. They were force multipliers.
Second, a more recent example. Why are blacks such a valued component of the liberal-Democratic coalition, despite being a minority, in some places one quite limited in size? There are two reasons: concentration in some places so they become a formidable bloc, but also because they support their candidates with overwhelming numbers. Again, voting over their weight.
Now apply this to pro-gun voters. They vote relentlessly on one issue, with everything else secondary. In other words, you may be down the line on building a wall, decrying immigrants taking jobs, or any other Trumpist position, but if you want to restrict guns they will still vote against you. As a bloc.
Let’s see how this plays out. I belong to a small group of like-minded spirits called The Friends. There are four of us, and we have been meeting once a month for dinner for over twenty years. Besides myself there is a businessman, a retired engineer, and a retired lawyer. We are as lefty as you can imagine. Like I said, kindred spirits.
Now suppose we are joined by two pro-gun conservatives. I recently asked our foursome, if they could change one issue, what would it be? The engineer, one of the founders of fair housing in Orange County, logically said open housing. The businessman, an African-American, said reforming the police, an issue he has devoted years of attention to. The lawyer, a person of scientific bent, listed climate change. All eminently worthwhile causes.
I, alone, listed gun control as the issue I would vote on above all. Thus, the conservatives would outvote us on this issue, two-to-one, if we went by priority. Jonah Goldberg recently wrote, “Indeed, the main reason for inaction isn’t the ‘stranglehold’ of the National Rifle Assn. — a relative piker when it comes to political spending — but the fact that millions of gun owners are likely to vote on the gun issue, while millions of gun-control supporters are not.”
A better example would be the case of Jeff Flake, a person admired by liberals because of his anti-Trump statements and positions. In a wonderful oped piece in the New York Times he issued a call to our ideals. “I have been powerfully reminded that we have all been raised with fidelity to a very large idea, the American idea. When that idea comes under threat, and it seems as if the center might not hold, it is not just our politics that suffers. When a leader wreaks havoc on our democratic norms, it is not just political Washington that is dragged through the muck. When that happens, it is deeply upsetting to people everywhere, almost existentially so, and we all suffer.”
Stirring words. Admirable words. But Jeff Flake is a conservative, and resolutely pro gun-rights. If he leads the charge against the president, would you nevertheless still vote against him because of his stance on guns?
But that is just how the pro-gun forces vote. Every time.
If you answered “no” to my query just above, you just explained why the gun-rights forces win.
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