Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Let's not deprive the NRA of credit for the near-certainly that we won't have any serious debate about gun control


[Click to enlarge.]

by Ken

I don't suppose there are champagne corks popping today at NRA HQ. They're too modest. But even though today's incident notched only two more casualties, the fact that it happened on live TV was a big win for gun nuttery. Just like the upcoming presidential election seems finally have to have been hijacked by the reality-substitute unreality of "reality TV," so now have the gun nuts invaded the tube.

I have no interest in looking at, and certainly no intention of reproducing, any images from this morning events. So instead I've given you the "title graph" from Georgetown poli sci Assoc. Prof. Danny Hayes's post this afternoon, "Why it's so hard to pass gun control (in one graph)."

Personally, I hate this whole miserable genre of "such-and-such explained in one graph" posts, because not only do they hardly ever explain such-and-such, they usually manage to obfuscate what we knew before their "one graph." So while what Professor Hayes has to say is all true enough, and I certainly agree with his conclusion that today's incident isn't likely to lead to any serious push for sanity in our gun policies, what's missing from his piece pretty well disqualifies his undertaking as a serious effort to "explain" why it's so hard to pass gun-control laws.

I'm sure you'll spot what's missing too (lots more links onsite):
With another shooting capturing the headlines today, the debate over gun control will once again make its way back into the news.

Indeed, within hours of the on-air killing of two Roanoke television journalists, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a call for stronger gun regulations. “We’ve got, in America, we’ve got to come together,” McAuliffe said. “There’s too much gun violence in the United States of America.”

Will this be the incident that leads to reforms that gun control advocates have for years pushed for? Will public support for tighter regulations translate into meaningful legislation this time?

Recent history says we should be doubtful. Not only do numerous political interests make it difficult to enact gun control legislation, but without major efforts by politicians themselves, the gun debate is likely to fade quickly from public view.

That’s because of what’s known as the “issue attention cycle.” Mass shootings often generate significant media coverage immediately after they occur. But as time goes by, journalists move on to other stories, leading the public to grow less concerned with gun control.

This is what happened in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. As the graph below shows, news coverage of gun control in the nation’s newspapers surged in the shooting’s aftermath, but declined quickly through 2013.

It was only executive action by President Obama and the U.S. Senate debate over a background check bill that kept the story in the news. Once politicians in Washington quit fighting, media coverage of the issue mostly disappeared. Not even a national tour by former representative Gabby Giffords or the Navy Yard shooting in Washington managed to hold the media’s attention.

This recent history – a pattern also evident in other mass shootings – suggests that a sustained debate over gun control after today’s shooting in Franklin County, Va., is likely only if McAuliffe or other politicians decide to take up the cause. Otherwise, the media and the public will turn their attention to other issues.


Technically, the NRA isn't entirely missing. It is, in fact, in the one link that I included -- the one where Professor Hayes remarks in passing that "numerous political interests make it difficult to enact gun control legislation." If you didn't follow that link, you may be surprised to learn that it's to another of those goddamn "such-and-such explained in one graph" posts -- a Sunlight Foundation post by Lee Drutman ("prepared in collaboration with Alexander Furnas and Amy Cesal") from Dec. 17, 2012 (three days after the Sandy Hook school gun massacre), "Explaining the power of the National Rifle Association, in one graph."

A quick graph count doesn't bolster the post's credibility. It came, not with "one graph," but with two bar charts, comparing "Election Spending" and "Lobbying Expenditures" by the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The accompanying estimate was that the NRA has spent 73 times what the Brady Campaign has.

Nevertheless, Lee Drutman had his target squarely in sight. Here's how he began:
In the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, one of the emerging debates is whether there will even be a debate. Past mass shootings have come and gone without any action. Many argue that the reason for this inaction is simple:  politicians have been afraid to take on the National Rifle Association, the large and influential pro-gun lobby that spent at least $18.6 million this past election cycle - $11.1 million through its Political Victory Fund, plus $7.5 million through its affiliated Institute for Legislative Action.

As CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer put it,  “Congress is literally afraid to take on the National Rifle Association because they know that if they make any kind of statement [that] even suggests some sort of limits on gun control, the NRA is going to pour, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to defeat them."

(Read about the 51 percent of lawmakers in the 113th Congress who have received campaign contributions from the NRA)

Here are the data: The NRA has spent 73 times what the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has spent on lobbying in the 112th Congress ($4.4 million to $60,000, through the second quarter of 2012), and 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign spent on the 2012 election ($18.6 million to $5,816). (One caveat on the data is that the NRA itself does a very poor job of accurately reporting its spending, and we must rely on its self-reports.)
Note that the parenthetical link about "the 51 percent of lawmakers in the 113th Congress who have received campaign contributions from the NRA" was to a follow-up post that Lee wrote -- "in collaboration with Alexander Furnas and Amy Cesai" -- on December 18: "NRA's allegiances reach deep into Congress."

Note too that Lee himself saw a limitation in the explanatory power of the two bar charts.
What these numbers don't capture is that the NRA boasts a grassroots  list of millions of voters and the resources to mobilize these voters at even the slightest threat of gun control laws. Gun control advocates have nothing that comes close. In 2012, the NRA spent at least $682,595 on communication costs, that is, political messages to its own members.

When it comes to the debate on gun policy, Congress is only hearing from one side.
Lee also wrote that it's "important to note that the NRA is not the sole pro-gun group," and added numbers from the Gun Owners of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which continued to dwarf the amount spent by "the only other explicitly pro-gun-control group we can find, Mayors Against Guns."

What's more, important as the money obviously is, it's still not the whole story of the gun lobby's power, which includes a mind meld with a sizable chunk of the American public, whose impact seems to me to carry well beyond the merely monetary. (Did I just say "merely monetary"? Actually, yes.)

And speaking of Sandy Hook, my takeaway from the utterly predictable political non-epilogue to those horrific shootings is that not only does the gun lobby no longer fear the possible public impact of such incidents, especially given their long experience at jumping in with instant spin, but they've learned that such incidents can be turned to their advantage with fund-raising campaigns about the supposedly looming threat to their supporters' gun "rights." Not to mention the propaganda campaign claiming that the real tragedy was lack of guns -- that Sandy Hook should, for example, have been overflowing with guns to prevent such an attack. (No, not in the hands of students. But teachers? You bet.)


By sheer coincidence, just yesterday Scott Keyes compiled a terrific piece for ThinkProgress Justice: "Republicans Say You Should Be Able To Carry Guns Everywhere. This Proves They Don’t Mean It." Scott began:
“Get rid of gun free zones,” Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump tweeted after a gunman massacred five in Chattanooga last month. “Gun-free zones an easy target for killers” an opinion headline on Fox News read after a white supremacist shot up a black South Carolina church and killed nine. Conservative sites also blamed gun-free zones after massacres at multiple movie theaters and other shootings.

If conservatives are so convinced that gun-free zones attract killers, then why do so many conservative places and events ban guns?

Across the country, from conservative confabs to Republican presidential libraries and even to gun shows, loaded weapons are frequently prohibited. When an explanation is given, the reason is invariably for the safety of visitors.
And he proceeded to offer an annotated "list of some of these conservative places that ban loaded guns" (again, they're all discussed onsite):
Gun Shows
Political Conferences
George W. Bush Presidential Library
Republican Conventions
Trump Hotels And Golf Courses
NRA Events
Town Halls
Presidential Campaign Stops
GOP Debates
"Of course," Scott concluded, "there’s a good reason why many conservatives don’t actually want to have guns in their own areas or events."
Contrary [to] the NRA’s claims, the vast majority of mass shootings don’t happen in gun-free zones. There’s also no evidence that a mass shooter ever chose his target because it prohibited firearms.

Instead, study after study has shown that more guns leads to more killings. In addition, even armed civilian bystanders with good intentions of stopping a shooter can wind up exacerbating already violent situations, as nearly happened in the Giffords shooting. [Links onsite.]

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