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Why America Can't Pass Gun Control

Hint: It's not the NRA or a gun-loving culture.

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Things have hardly changed since Norquist made those comments. The NRA's job is made easier because it can target its resources at the three dozen swing districts like a military strategist dividing quadrants on a battlefield. That allows a small number of NRA voters to form a potent single-issue voting bloc, since a change in 5 percent of the vote in any swing district can make all the difference. The NRA has power not so much because of its deep pockets but because of the fundamental design of our geographic-based political map in which representatives are elected in single-seat, winner-take-all districts.

Many Democrats believe that strong support for gun control has cost their party key elections in such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They believe that Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee because he was on the wrong side of this issue.

That led to Democrats ducking and even pandering on this issue. Who can forget the ridiculous sight of John Kerry trumpeting his own prowess as a gun owner when he ran for president in 2004. When Democrats regained the House after the 2006 elections, they did so largely based on victories by Democrats winning in Republican-leaning districts. Knowing that support for gun control could cause them to lose their race, no matter how broad national support was, most of those winning Democrats backed the NRA positions. And in his first term, President Obama continued the Democratic duck, not even pushing to reauthorize the lapsed ban on semi-automatic weapons.

The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status -- much like anti-Castro Cubans in Florida have pushed Democrats as well as Republicans to go hard on Castro. Despite lobbying from his liberal constituency, Obama has not fundamentally changed the Cold War era policy towards Cuba, due to fear of how that would play among a key bloc of swing voters in a key presidential swing state. Democrats know how to count not only votes but swing votes, whether in battleground states or battleground House districts.

That gives pro-gun swing voters and their advocates like the NRA tremendous influence in our political system. American pundits and political scientists often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as in Italy and Israel, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold their governments hostage. Yet they fail to recognize how the dynamics of our own winner-take-all electoral politics allow well-organized political minorities such as those represented by the NRA to mobilize anti-gun control swing voters to push a radical agenda on the mainstream.

Looking ahead to 2014, control of the House once again will come down to the outcome of 35 or so close races. To earn a House majority, Democrats will need to sweep nearly all of them,  largely in districts where a pro-gun control position doesn't play well. The math of the 2014 election is daunting, since Democrats can't win control of the U.S. House without winning more than a dozen districts where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in 2012 -- and that assumes that the Democrats sweep all 207 districts carried by Obama. So this dilemma for President Obama and the Democrats will not be settled easily.

Obama might manage to use the passion unleashed by this latest tragedy to re-authorize the ban on semi-automatic weapons. But any hope that he will lead an effort to enact substantive gun control is pure fantasy. Tragically so. When it comes to gun policy and the House, demography is destiny.

 
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