NRA influence on gun control debate belies myth of majority rule

Editor's note: This is a preview of an article that appears in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

Almost every U.S. schoolchild knows that democracy means “the people rule” or “government by the people,” or some variation on that theme. Right? Well, not really. The world is a lot more complicated than that and includes the fact that intense and mobilized minorities exercise an impact on public policy far in excess of what their numbers of members or sympathizers would justify.

Nowhere is this political weight and outsized impact on public policy more clearly evident than in the debate and conflict over guns and gun legislation. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the most powerful and well-financed interest groups in Washington, or in any state capital. It works consistently and effectively to define the framing of the gun control debate, and to ensure that federal and state policies reflect its preferences.

Republican officeholders usually support the NRA and are almost unanimously opposed to any form of gun control. They feel especially vulnerable to potential primary challenges if they do not. Democrats from the red states (and the red sections of the blue states) are terrified of offending the NRA and its supporters.

The NRA works constantly to find, fund and elect candidates at the federal and state levels who will toe the line on gun control. Everyone who knows anything about policy making in Washington or any state capital will warn prospective candidates not to incur the wrath or opposition of the NRA, unless the candidate happens to come from a particular type of urban district where the quest to control street crime and violence is a desperate one, and guns are deemed to be a major factor exacerbating the problem.

This fight over some level of gun control and solutions to the continuing parade of mass slayings at the hands of deranged killers is one of the most contentious and compelling public policy issues the nation faces. It has been particularly heated since the multiple homicides at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 and in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July of last year. Before that there was the wounding of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the killing of a federal judge in 2011 in Tucson, along with five others killed and 13 wounded. Before that there was Columbine High School in Colorado, Virginia Tech University, Northern Illinois University, and a grim procession of other place names marked by sickening violence that now fades to a blur in our collective memories.

After each of these incidents, there is a call for more gun control legislation and measures addressing the mental health issues of the perpetrators. A contentious debate ensues over why the United States leads the world in the number of gun-enabled deaths and injuries each year. After the initial outburst, the debate and the fuel for the fire dies down, and not much gets done in the policy arena.


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