In the wake of last week’s mass shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. and a Chicago playground, news analysis has shown—once again—how easy it is for Americans to obtain firearms, even when, as was true of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, a record of past incidents should have raised multiple red flags. Will these latest tragedies finally spur Congress or states like Virginia—where Alexis purchased his shotgun, even though he was not a Virginia resident—to enact tougher gun-control measures?
Don’t bet on it. After the 2012 mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut, pundits also predicted that major gun-control initiatives would be unstoppable. A few states did enact measures restricting magazine size, but even those laws may not last—as shown by the recent defeat, in recall elections, of two Colorado legislators who voted for that state’s new law. Meanwhile, Congress has failed to enact any new, stricter measures.
With public opinion polls repeatedly showing a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun control laws, what accounts for the inability of lawmakers to take substantial action? Conventional wisdom points to the power of the pro-gun lobby, and while that is undoubtedly part of the answer, it is not the whole of it. The tragedy of America’s relative inaction on guns is not mostly a failure of democracy. As I explain in this column, much of the problem is that our democracy reflects the public will too well.
The Effect of Lobbying
It would be foolish to deny that the gun-rights lobby has real political power. It’s not just the National Rifle Association (NRA) that wields the power of the purse on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures around the country. Other groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Gun Owners of America often outflank the NRA to the right. In recent years, these gun-rights groups have spent an order of magnitude more money on lobbying than gun-control groups have.
But that may be changing. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made gun control one of his pet issues, and he is spending millions of dollars trying to level the playing field, targeting political contributions to candidates who support gun control, and against those who oppose it. Moreover, despite losing the initiative after last year’s shootings, there does appear to be more energy on the gun-control side than at any time in recent history.
In any event, even if we acknowledge that the gun-rights lobby is more powerful than the gun-control lobby, lobbying alone cannot explain the legislative picture. By way of comparison, consider the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel organization that, like the NRA and some other pro-gun groups, wields outsized influence on Capitol Hill. Although AIPAC’s ties to Democrats and Republicans alike often guide American foreign policy in the Middle East, the recent experience with Syria is instructive.
AIPAC supported President Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, but that support was not sufficient to sway a majority in Congress in the face of deep skepticism from the American people. Had President Obama not switched course to pursue a negotiated resolution with Russia and Syria, his plan would probably have been defeated in Congress, notwithstanding AIPAC support.
The broader lesson is that powerful lobbies can affect policy when the public is indifferent or closely divided, but that lobbying rarely suffices to overcome strong public opinion. Applying that lesson to firearms, the reluctance of American lawmakers to enact far-reaching gun control would not appear to be simply a response to the gun-rights lobby. Instead, it would appear that the gun-rights position enjoys strong public support.
American Democracy Is Not a Plebiscite
But what about the public opinion polls that show that Americans favor at least some new gun-control measures—like expanded background checks—by a very wide margin? Are these polls wrong?
Not necessarily. For one thing, views about guns vary regionally, and depending on whether voters live in rural, suburban or urban areas. In some places, gun control is broadly unpopular. But even where tougher gun-control measures enjoy majority support, that support does not always translate into legislative support.
With the notable exception of ballot initiatives in California and other states, American democracy does not operate as a series of plebiscites that results in legislation mirroring majority sentiment on every topic. Voters elect representatives who legislate on a wide variety of issues. In choosing a representative to the state legislature or Congress, voters must choose between different packages of views on issues.
As the major parties have each become more ideologically coherent over the last few decades, voters who strongly identify with the ideology of one party or the other have found it easier to vote for someone who shares most of their views. But political independents, or those who hold strong views that do not correspond to the views of either party, must choose which candidate comes closest to their own views.
For example, consider a strongly libertarian voter. Broadly speaking, these days the Republican Party fields candidates who are economic libertarians but also social conservatives, while the Democratic Party fields candidates who are social libertarians but (relatively speaking) economic progressives. Assuming that there is no viable third-party libertarian candidate, should the libertarian voter cast her ballot for the Republican or for the Democrat? The answer depends largely on whether she places greater emphasis on economic or social issues.
The choice faced by our libertarian voter faces all voters, albeit in different degrees. No thoughtful voter will find that he agrees with any candidate on everything, so he will settle for finding a candidate with whom he agrees on the issues as to which he cares about the most.
And that logic may partly explain why voters who favor gun rights have been so successful at blocking gun control, even though they are outnumbered. Although more people favor than oppose additional gun-control measures, the gun-control opponents appear to favor gun rights with greater intensity than the majority favors gun control. Put differently, people who favor gun rights are more likely to be single-issue voters than are people who favor gun control.
Candidates respond to single-issue voters. If, in some electoral district, even ten percent of the voters are single-issue gun rights voters, both major candidates may be inclined to favor gun rights. Why? Because opposing gun rights will certainly cede those voters to the other side, while favoring gun rights will not necessarily alienate voters who favor gun control. If the ninety percent who favor gun control favor it only weakly, then they will still vote for a gun-rights candidate who reflects their views on other issues about which they care more deeply.
Weighting Intensity Is a Feature, Not a Bug
In his classic 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, the late economics professor Mancur Olson, Jr., explained how relatively small, well-organized groups with intense preferences can direct legislative policy in directions that are broadly unpopular. Since then, some so-called “public choice” scholars and others have sometimes argued that this is a flaw in our democratic institutions. And indeed, sometimes it is. When the diffuse harm that industry does to the environment outweighs the intense and concentrated benefits that industry derives from inflicting that harm without having to pay for it, we have reason to lament that the industry lobby will be able to stave off regulation because the public opposition is weak and diffuse.
However, it does not follow that democracy is flawed whenever it operates to give weight to the intensity of voter preferences. After all, in our daily lives, we recognize that intensity matters.
Suppose you are deciding what to serve for a dinner party. You know that four of your five guests very much enjoyed the sesame noodles with peanut sauce that you prepared the last time you hosted. But this time you have also invited a friend with a peanut allergy. Surely it would be sensible to prepare a peanut-free meal, even though a majority would prefer a meal with peanuts. You would give more weight to the allergy sufferer’s preference because of its intensity.
A well-designed democracy will likewise give greater weight to intense preferences than to weak ones. If our democracy sometimes gives too much weight to intense preferences—as it does in my schematic pollution example, and in far too many real cases of so-called “industry capture” of the legislative and regulatory processes—that does not mean that there is anything inherently undemocratic about designing a lawmaking system that weights preference intensity. To borrow the language of computer engineering, weighting preferences is a feature of our democracy, not a bug in our system.
If I am right that the intensity gap is at least partly responsible for the failure of most efforts to enact tougher gun- control laws, then the lesson for voters who favor gun control should be clear: Don’t just favor gun control; favor it intensely.