Commentary Magazine


The NRA and the Intensity Gap

Liberal commentators are expressing horror about the celebratory tone of the speeches heard this past weekend at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The NRA wasn’t shy about declaring victory in its struggle to thwart the Obama administration’s efforts to pass a raft of new gun laws, even stopping the most moderate Manchin-Toomey expansion of background checks. But what’s really interesting about the commentary about the NRA love-in with opponents of gun laws like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin isn’t so much the anger about the group’s triumph as it is in the blind confidence on the left that the group’s days of political success are numbered.

Anyone who listened to most of those commenting on the NRA gathering on the news talk shows in recent days knows that among liberals there is a conviction that what happened in the last month, when Democrats joined with the majority of Republicans to stop Manchin-Toomey and every other proposed gun law, including those that would have imposed far greater restrictions on firearm ownership, won’t be repeated in the future. They believe anger from the voters who presumably make up the large majorities that polls say back universal background checks, fueled by emotional appeals from the Newtown victim families and funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will change the political equation next year.

But while one should never underestimate the power of the sort of “bloody shirt” politics that Newtown has produced as well as the impact of Bloomberg’s cash, the NRA convention should have reminded us that single-issue politics is always a function of the intensity gap that have always decided votes on gun control.

Liberal pundits can talk all they want about the polls that show 90 percent of Americans backing background checks, but the vast majority of voters are influenced by a multiplicity of issues in any election. A politician who can be portrayed as outside the mainstream is always going to be in trouble. But the point about hot-button issues like guns is that most of the votes that are cast on it are not in the mushy middle, where most Americans reside, but on the margins, where the fervor is primarily to be found among those who treat anything that can be conceivably interpreted as an infringement on gun rights as what will determine how they cast their ballot.

Thus, it is no surprise to learn that in the months since Newtown, NRA membership has gone through the roof, with their numbers expanding from four to five million strong. The president and other gun-control advocates can pretend that the group is merely the political arm of the firearms industry, but any organization that can count five million dues-paying members must be considered formidable no matter what they were advocating.

The growth of the NRA seems counterintuitive to liberals who believe Newtown and any other instance of gun violence proves that more legislation is needed to curb the availability of weapons. But what they are finding is that the more they scream about the need for gun control, the more people who like guns are flocking to stores to buy them and signing up for the NRA. And unlike the overwhelming majority of those who tell pollsters they like Manchin-Toomey, these NRA members can be counted on to keep the group’s “stand and fight” slogan in mind in the voting booth.

A Bloomberg-funded push against a northeastern Republican like Kelly Ayotte and the continued stalking of her by gun violence victim family members might make a difference in her re-election race in 2016. But the majority of those up in 2014, including red-state Democrats, are probably still more afraid of the NRA than they are of the New York mayor.

Though the NRA has made plenty of mistakes in the past few months, none of them has diminished the intensity of those who see any compromise on the issue as the thin edge of the wedge of the movement toward the banning of legal weapons. For that, they can thank Obama and Bloomberg.

Part of the problem here is that no matter how reasonable background checks might be (and I happen to agree that Manchin-Toomey was reasonable and in no way should be construed as an infringement on the Second Amendment), there was no clear connection between outrage about Newtown and the proposals put forward in Congress. As much as liberals thought that tragedy was a game-changer, it didn’t convince anybody who cared about gun rights to change their minds. Nor did it create a huge, vocal single-issue constituency for gun control that would have the potential to frighten politicians away from the NRA. Indeed, as I wrote last week, the president’s effort to exploit the emotions of the country seems only to have inspired more fervent opposition because they see Manchin-Toomey as a stalking horse for the broader liberal measures that will surely follow if it is passed.

While it is possible they can create an answer to the NRA in the way that abortion-rights defenders have done so in response to the pro-life movement, it’s not clear this will make much of a difference in states where guns are popular. Unless and until Democrats (who were conspicuous by their absence from the roster of NRA speakers) can demonstrate that their anti-gun crusade can produce the same kind of intensity that gun rights advocates can count on, this won’t change. 

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