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The Real Reason Gun Control Is Failing

Americans don't seem to get that all guns are death waiting to happen.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Burlingham/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

The Michael Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety  announced on Monday a new gambit for creating pressure on candidates to move, finally, in the direction of stricter gun laws: the group will offer them  a survey. Everytown – one of  several sane competitors playing the long game against the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on violence in America – will make politicians put their positions on firearm restrictions, however convoluted, on the record. As the head of the organization, which has  $50m in Bloomberg backing to the NRA’s untold millions, pronounced: “Now we’re going toe-to-toe with the gun lobby.”

This has the feel of a good idea, because it is one – one already employed, simply to opposite effect, by the NRA itself. Everytown isn't offering a counterweight to the NRA's rating system, it is duplicating it … just without the grades. What information could an anti-gun voter would find in the Everytown questionnaire that the NRA hasn't ferreted out itself? It will tell you who to vote for as surely as  a National Right-to-Life rating will direct a voter concerned about preserving the right to choose.

The NRA's ratings are a symptom of its success, not the cause. And the idea that voters are just waiting to vote against pro-gun candidates – if they only knew who they were – badly misdiagnoses the disconnect between gun-control activists and Americans in general. It’s that very disconnect that put meaningful gun legislation into legislative free-fall. To address the gap, activists such as those at Everytown need to redraw focus away from the infrequent horror of mass shootings and get voters to recognize the daily tragedies of gun violence. A taller order, but just as necessary: make clear that the gun violence is not about violent people with guns – it's about guns, period.

The real audience for the NRA's ratings aren't voters but the candidates themselves. They are a measure of how much financial support the candidate can expect from the NRA itself and its membership. In that regard, Bloomberg's millions may function similarly for Everytown ... and its ratings may have the same disappointing results.

In the 2012 cycle,  the NRA saw a miserable return on its investment in electoral spending – the percent of its money that wound up on the winning side of an election was less than 1%. Now, that number is not as heartening to gun-control supporters as it sounds. The group spent most of its money, $7m of $11m, against Obama, and much of the remaining $4m challenging the Democratic incumbents who rode Obama's coattails.

But this is the hard lesson that Everytown and its supporters might learn from the NRA's bad bet: There are remarkably few single-issue gun voters. In fact, according to Gallup,  just 2% of Americans think guns are the most pressing national problem, which doesn't even mean that 2% of Americans think there should be more gun control. Since 2001,  the percentage of respondents who think the main problem with our gun laws is that they’re too strict has gone up from 9% to 16%, and the number who think they aren't strict enough has gone down, from 39% to 31%. The past decade has seen lurid, saturating coverage of mass shootings that's made us more aware of them than ever – even if they're not  actually more common. And people are less sure that we need more gun control.

gallup gun laws

via Gallup

So, if the NRA's endorsement and its funding mean less and less, how do you square that with general American support for "stricter gun control" sitting  39 points lower today than it was in 1990? An even bigger conundrum: How do you make sense of  a new Quinnipiac poll that showed overwhelming majorities of Americans, gun owners, Democrats and Republicans favoring specific new restrictions on gun sales – background checks for all buyers, laws against purchase by the mentally ill – when the same poll showing strong resistance (47%) to "stricter gun laws" in general?