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The Politics of Gun Control

In recent years, political discourse about gun control and the Second Amendment has become increasingly volatile. Gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association are more organized and aggressive and their issue agenda has evolved as new and more powerful weapons and militia appear. On the other side of the debate, the critical wounding of James Brady gave gun control advocates a visible martyr with strong ties to Republican conservatives. In sum, gun control and the right to bear arms have become hotly disputed issues where political alignments are constantly shifting.

This paper will examine gun control legislation and look at factors that affect party cohesion on this specific issue.  Paying special attention to special interest groups, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their campaign contributions, the congressional districts and the constituents, and third look at how current events and the media have had an impact on political action.  I will show that political action on the Hill, by introducing bills and voting, is affected by those three things.

I’ll begin by looking at one of the most recent pieces of legislation to be on the floor of the House, H.R. 2122 which failed to pass on June 19, 1999.   Democratic Congressman John Dingell from Michigan introduced an amendment (H.A. 215)  which passed on June 18, 1999 with a vote of 218-211.  This amendment decreases the time allowed for a background check at a gun show from 72 hours to 24 hours.  It also requires the FBI to prioritize background checks requested at gun shows be answered before other background check request.  The amendment could also increase the minimum prison penalty to 15 years for crimes committed in large capacity ammunition clips (Library of Congress, Thomas)

In 1994 Congressman Dingell, then a board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), infuriated the group by voting for his party’s crime bill, which banned assault weapons. Dingell won re-election, but other old-timers who voted for the bill did not, and the Democrats lost control of Congress. So when the latest gun-control bill came up in June, Dingell didn’t take any chances. This time, instead of backing the president, he decided to join with Republicans and NRA lobbyists to author a compromise. After a week of emotional debate, Dingell’s bill went down to defeat on both sides of the aisle, all but killing any chance for stricter gun laws this year.

The loss was crushing to anti-gun forces and the White House. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, polls show that more than 80 percent of Americans back stricter laws (Newsweek).  In May of 1999, the Senate took advantage of the national mood to pass a tough law requiring safety locks on new handguns and a detailed background check on buyers at gun shows.  But as they have so many times before, activists underestimated the ferocity and might of the NRA and its nearly 3 million members. (NRA.org).

The NRA unleashed thousands of callers to clog congressional switchboards while a dozen lobbyists worked the halls.  The group’s Web site featured a dubious article implying that Bill Clinton, like the Nazis, was trying to disarm the populace (NRA.org).  In the end, the House passed H.R.1501, The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1999, a law allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools, but backed away from gun control. It was just the latest example of a strange political disconnect that has characterized the gun debate for most of this century.  That is, gun-control initiative has enjoyed strong public support—only to be weakened or killed by the Congress.

This time, it was Dingell who tinkered with the process.  Dingell worried that a strong gun-control law could cost Democrats critical seats in the South and West—wrecking the party’s hopes of winning a majority in November.  His solution: draft his own compromise bill, with the NRA’s blessing, that called for less thorough background checks for buyers at gun shows. Dingell’s bill attracted more than 40 vulnerable Democrats, who could avoid the wrath of the gun lobby but still tell constituents they voted for gun control. The plan also reaped unexpected rewards.  When Republicans—who thought even the compromise was too tough—killed the bill, they handed House Democrats, and Al Gore, a powerful campaign theme to use against the GOP in the upcoming election.  Ironically, even Dingell himself voted against the bill he authored (Newsweek, June 1999).

President Clinton made phone calls to appeal to 14 conservative “blue dog” Democrats and moderate Republicans. He got 12 of them.  One of those who ultimately snubbed Clinton was Congressman Nick Lampson, a Texas Democrat who watched his powerful predecessor, Jack Brooks, get taken down after the 1994 gun vote.  Lampson wasn’t about to repeat the mistake. “From the time I ran, it was clear that I would vote to protect the rights of all citizens to buy and bear arms,” Lampson said in an interview. (Newsweek, June 1999)
It’s hard to blame vulnerable Democrats for taking cover.  It’s a common misperception that the NRA’s power derives from its money.  The real muscle of the group is its tenacious membership.  Its members will mobilize; they’ll join together and lobby by calling, writing, and sending faxes.

They’ve certainly had plenty of practice.  June’s gun vote was just the latest in a long string of NRA victories.  In 1968, with some 70 percent of the public supporting stepped-up gun control, the NRA thwarted President Johnson’s call for registering all guns.  Congress did manage to ban the import of lethal junk guns known as Saturday night specials, but domestic manufacturers rushed to fill the void.  Four years later, the NRA helped kill a bill that would have banned Saturday night specials altogether.  In 1986 the NRA worked to weaken a ban on so-called cop-killer bullets.  The streak was interrupted in 1993, when Clinton stung the NRA by passing the most sweeping gun-control law on the books: the Brady Bill (Spitzer, 1995), named after former White House press secretary James Brady.  Brady and his wife, Sarah, became proponents of gun control after Brady was shot and seriously wounded during a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

The so-called Brady Law, which went into effect in 1994, initially provided a five-day waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to make sure the purchaser is not disqualified from owning a handgun.  The law also established licensing fees.  In 1998 a new computerized verification system replaced the five-day waiting period requirement.  Under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), firearms dealers submit the names of potential buyers into the system and can more quickly ascertain whether the sale may proceed (Encarta).
Gun-control advocates are already preparing for their next confrontation with the NRA, building a grass-roots network and bringing in more PAC money for lobbying.  The goal is to beat the NRA at its own game by mobilizing militant anti-gun votes in 2000.

The failure of gun-control legislation isn’t about the NRA’s massive campaign coffers. It’s about a small band of single-issue voters who manage to subvert meaningful public policy.  For all the national outrage at the schoolhouse massacres in Littleton, Colo. and elsewhere, the sentiment could not keep gun-control legislation from dying on the House floor.  As with so many other issues, majority support does not necessarily lead to action in Congress.  How can there be such a disconnect between popular opinion and public policy?

Some reformers say the answer is money.  Their enemy is the NRA and its campaign cash.  Since the Littleton massacre, we have seen a rash of statistics showing how the NRA and its allies outspend gun-control groups by a ratio of almost 27-to-one. (Mother Jones, June 1999).  These numbers appear influential, but money is of secondary importance for explaining its influence.  The simple fact is that the NRA’s money has power because there is a critical mass of voters out there who are attracted to its message.
An analysis of those 45 Democrats who voted against HR 2122 reveals overwhelming number representing swing districts, primarily from southern and western districts that reflect their constituents’ embrace of gun rights.  For them, this is an issue that, if they fall on the wrong side of it, will cause them to lose their seat. (Project Vote Smart)

The power of the NRA, then, has come from its power to influence the relatively few close elections that often can determine control of our legislatures.  In those swing districts, a change in 5 percent of the vote can make all the difference — both for winning those races and control of Congress.
In the winner-take-all voting system that creates our adversarial politics, guns have been one of the most effective wedge issues for Republicans to cut into the Democrats’ vote. Now, however, guns may backfire. Polls show that another “swing voter” slice of the electorate, the proverbial suburban “soccer moms,” may change their vote based on gun control. So the two parties are trying to position themselves between the swings of the polls, and sound national policy gets caught in the crossfire.  (Richie and Hill)

Gun control is a regional issue that resonates differently in the cities than it does in rural and western areas. But as violence has spread to suburban schools, one place it has become particularly popular is in the suburbs. And the suburbs have become the swing areas in both the Presidential and Congressional elections. Gun control also appeals overwhelmingly to college-educated women, who have been considered key to the Democrats’ inroads this decade into the once solidly Republican suburban vote.

For Republicans, the gun control issue has become more difficult as American sentiment has shifted.  Their core conservative supporters include many people who feel strongly about the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms. And the NRA was one of the advocacy groups that House Republicans credited with helping them win the majority in 1994. It is also a major donor to Republicans.  In 1998, for example, the NRA’s political action committee donated $1.35 million to the Republican Congressional candidates and $283,000 to Democrats.  That means that, particularly in the House, where the two parties are fighting for control in 2000, Republicans must carry out a difficult balancing act, doing nothing to offend these conservatives while not imperiling the moderate Republicans from the northeast. (FEC data)
Contributes to DEM Candidates: $283,200
Contributes to REP Candidates: $1,355,111

Through a combination of money and energetic lobbying and voting strategies, the pro-gun side has continued to thwart the desire of the vast majority of American voters.  The NRA and its allies gave more than eight times as much to candidates for Congress as handgun-control advocates in 1995-96.  The NRA’s PAC was the largest ideological donor in both 1993-94 and 1995-96. While the gun-control side may have the people on their side, the NRA has the cash.  (Alterman, 1999)

The role of the media and the information it conveys is very important to politics.  Media informs an entire nation of people about politics and policies.  However, the media contains several potentially conflicting roles.  The media is main source of issue information, it provides entertainment, and its primary interest is to make a profit.  Thus, there is concern whether hard news will take a back seat to entertainment or whether profit-making motives will taint the content of the news (Jillson).  The media brings attention to current events.  When there is an outbreak of gun violence or a school shooting, and it is constantly on the news, in the papers and magazines, and on the news magazine shows, it creates a reaction from the viewers.  This in turn, will often times have an effect on the Hill.  Viewers are in an uproar about an issue and get on the phone to their Congressmen.
The media selects and presents most if not all political information for us.

Most political news comes from official political sources.  Reporters depend heavily upon sources, press conferences, briefings, or official channels for information.  In general, the public tends to ignore political affairs.  When the public does pay attention, most political news comes from newspapers or television.  Most people know little about issues but focus on immediate family or community issues.  This tendency is exacerbated by sporadic and current style of media presentation.  The public official and the journalist benefit from each other.  Politicians can reach constituents, and reporters can reach and hold an audience.  Journalist and politicians benefit from each other most during elections.  Politicians need media exposure to reach voters (Jillson).


Alterman, Eric.  “A Failure of Democracy.”  IntellectualCapitol.com  August 1999

Bai, Matt, “Caught in the Cross-Fire.”  Newsweek June 1999

Encarta.  http://encarta.msn.com/

Jillson, Cal.  American Government: Political Change and Institutional Development. Harcourt Brace, 1998

Library of Congress  web site http://thomas.loc.gov/

National Rifle Association web page,  http://www.nra.org/

Richie, Rob and Hill, Steven.  “Why Gun control Legislation Always Fails”  Mother Jones, June 1999.  http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/

Spitzer, Robert J.  The Politics of Gun Control, Chatam, New Jersey, Chatham House, 1995

Vote Net, Information Federal Elections Commission of the United States http://fecinfo.votenet.com

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