What the gun control movement can learn from gay rights

Andrew Cuomo and a rainbow flag. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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Blake Zeff

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There's a reason that nothing's happening to improve gun safety in America despite the mass shootings that now occur so regularly: No one in power is scared of the gun control movement.

Go ahead, if you want, and knock on all the doors in the Rayburn House building on Capitol Hill and ask what the political repercussions are for inaction on gun control. (People will laugh.) Then ask what the consequences are of acting in defiance of the National Rifle Association.

The N.R.A. has an estimated yearly budget of $220 million, and spent $64.5 million over the last decade to influence federal elections, targeting wayward legislators for defeat and providing an implicit threat to others that they mean business.

The leading gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spent $3.1 million in 2010, the most recent year for which they have an annual report online. Its spending over the last decade on federal elections? Just over half a million dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Know what’s not the reason nothing is happening on gun control? Public opinion.  

Americans support an assault weapons ban by 57-42, according to a new CNN poll. Yes, polls like this can't provide an accurate measure of passion—the likelihood that respondents will actually go out and cast their votes based on this particular issue. And it is generally assumed that the people who say they oppose gun control are more likely to vote on the basis of that issue than the people who support it.

But there's this, too: Most members of the N.R.A. itself support straightforward gun safety measures that are adamantly opposed by the organization’s leadership and funders, indicating, as The New Republic’s Amy Sullivan suggests, that N.R.A. members are more positively disposed at the moment toward gun safety regulation than Congress is.  

Conclusion: The gun control movement, such as it is, is doing something very wrong.

For ideas on how to improve their effectiveness, gun control advocates could do worse than to study the playbook of the most effective liberal policy initiative in recent years: the movement to legalize same-sex marriage.

While gun control and gay rights are very different things, there are a couple of key directives that apply to both: Play political hardball, put your money where your mouth is and reframe the debate to deprive the opposition of fuel.  

While the gay rights movement did transformational work in moving public opinion, that’s not the only way it achieved significant legislative progress. In New York, the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, the key players knew that to get legislators to act, there needed to be force behind the political threats, and protection for officials who might be endangering themselves by voting for the law.   

This meant that Democratic lawmakers in Albany who were iffy on supporting the bill knew they'd face a plausible primary challenge is they balked, and sympathetic Republicans knew they'd get funding help to deal with whatever backlash they'd face for voting with the other side.

Enter mega-rich supporters of gay marriage like billionaire Paul Singer, hedge fund executives Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb, financier Steve Cohen, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others.

These donors were not just financially useful, but happened to be politically symbolic, because they were Republicans. In addition to executing a precise political strategy, gay marriage advocates understood the importance of expanding their coalition. As a result, they sought to lower the temperature in their approach to the issue; gone were the days of denouncing "bigots" and protesting the church, in place of a more inclusive and benign message that amounted to, Don't feel obliged to perform gay marriages but please don't prevent them from being recognized.

With commitments from a politically diverse coalition of deep-pocketed backers, activists and their most powerful political ally, Governor Andrew Cuomo, were able to get three Democrats who had voted against marriage equality just two years earlier to switch their vote, and more remarkably, to get four Republicans to do the same.

(Months later, the Republicans who voted for the historic law were duly showered with donations.) 

So Step One for the gun control movement is to do a better job of leveraging the resources of its wealthiest supporters, and to find more of them. There are lots of rich liberals in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street who have no natural affinity for the gun lobby or the gun manufacturers that support it, and who might be willing to put their money behind the first advocacy group that can convince them it will be spent effectively.

Here, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a registered independent who is now the nation's most prominent advocate of gun control, provides an example and a counterexample of how that might work.

He's coming through with the money (much as he did with the gay-rights Republicans) with the promise of much more to come when he leaves office.

On the other hand, rhetoric notwithstanding, his approach has been constrained so far by his self-styled centrism, which seems to require him to avoid easily comprehensible statements of principle that might be construed as partisan or ideological.

So instead of making support for an assault-weapons ban into an easily comprehensible litmus test—the way the N.R.A. does, to terrific effect—Bloomberg rewards what he regards as political independence on a situational basis, as he did with his recent decision to hold a fund-raiser for Republican senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, a regular ally of the N.R.A. who opposed his party on one particularly controversial piece of "concealed carry reciprocity" legislation that would have affected New York City.

Here, too, Bloomberg and any other would-be benefactor of the gun control movement would be wise to follow the same-sex-marriage model, by focusing on a consistent message that changes the terms of the debate.

At the moment, those terms are dictated pretty precisely by the N.R.A., boiling the argument down to pro-gun versus anti-gun. The fact is that the vast majority of gun owners would not be affected by safety regulations. By reaching out to them, the movement could expand its coalition and reduce the passion of the opposition. Emphasizing a libertarian message—it is liberating to law-abiding citizens to take assault weapons out of the hands of criminals—could also broaden support.

At the very least, it would start to weaken the N.R.A.'s "slippery slope" argument, that any gun-safety measure is a first step by big-government liberals toward confiscation of the weapons they keep for hunting and self-defense.

Which gets at what may be the most important difference between the push for gay marriage and the push for more effective regulation of guns: When gay-rights advocates achieved their marriage victory in New York, they benefited from a relatively weak and poorly organized opposition movement. That's a luxury that gun control advocates will never have.

But if Bloomberg and other wealthy supporters of gun control were to create a single-issue Super-PAC, seed it with $200 million, hire experienced operatives to scare on-the-fence legislators and protect rebels, the political fight with the N.R.A. would start looking a lot fairer, fast.