The Gun Lobby's Raw Power

The New York Times weighs in on the failed push for expanded background checks with a familiar take: Congress didn’t pass the Manchin-Toomey gun compromise because President Obama failed to “twist arms.” As with its columnist Maureen Dowd, the Times makes no mention of the GOP’s near-unanimous decision to filibuster the proposal; in this narrative of Washington, the choices made by individual lawmakers are irrelevant—only the president has any agency.

As such, the Times—and various Beltway reporters—can focus their stories on why Obama failed to win GOP votes, and not on the calculations that led Republicans to oppose expanded background checks, even as they earned wide support from the public.

For that, you have to look at the broader political landscape. President Obama won reelection by nearly five million votes, but he didn’t win a majority of congressional districts, and only won half of all states. For a large chunk of Congress, there’s no particular reason to support Obama’s priorities—he holds no leverage over their political situation.

But let’s say Obama was “twisting arms” and could deliver on political threats. Even still, it remains true that there is a major imbalance of power in the gun control fight. The National Rifle Association spent $18.6 million on the 2012 election cycle, and dropped more than $4.4 million on lobbying in the 112th Congress. Compare that to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which spent a measly $60,000 on lobbying, and $5,816 on the last year’s elections.

Money isn’t everything in politics—it isn’t even most things—but the difference between the NRA and the Brady Campaign is a difference of magnitudes, and it matters. The NRA can enforce its threats; gun control advocates, not so much.

Yes, public opinion is on the side of gun control, but that guarantees nothing. When action happens in our political system, it’s almost always on behalf of the organized—dedicated interests can accomplish far more than disinterested majorities. For new gun regulations to pass, and for Obama to have any chance at bending lawmakers, there needs to be a large, organized lobby for gun control. Barring that, you should expect failure.