Posted by: sweeneyblog | March 30, 2013

Keep it Simple, Sweeney: Why is it so hard to pass gun safety measures?

This is another entry in my “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” category (you can find the other entries here), where I take a big complicated issue and break it down into easy to understand parts.

It is a pretty straightforward question, “Why can’t our legislators pass any gun safety measures?” Already, an assault weapon ban is dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate and the concept of universal background checks looks like it is on life support. Here in blue Washington, we couldn’t get an expanded background check bill out of the Democratically-controlled House (which is the excuse Sen. Ericksen used when I asked him about it). With polls showing around 91% of Americans supporting universal background checks and 60% supporting an assault weapon ban, it would appear that this would be a slam dunk for any legislator. So why are these measures withering on the vine?

It comes down to two C’s: Cash and Consistency.

"You can take this cold, hard cash from my campaign coffers"

“You can take this cold, hard cash from my campaign coffers”

Cash. While much digital ink has been spilled over the power or lack thereof of the NRA, let me tell you one thing they are very good at: fundraising. Their direct mail operation is one of the best in the nation (Planned Parenthood is the only comparable organization on the left). When the NRA does a push, they raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from people all over the United States. Now, money does not decide elections by itself, but let’s do a little thought experiment to show you its power.

Imagine you are an incumbent congressperson in a relatively safe district (55-45). Right now, you are cruising to reelection because big business in your district wants to curry favor with the sitting congressman and you aren’t a target. Your opponent, some District Attorney wanting to make a name for herself, is not able to raise enough money to be a threat, so you can hire a token campaign team and sleep through the election. However, if the NRA decides to target you because of your vote on a gun bill, that District Attorney gets flooded with NRA cash. Suddenly, the big business people in your district get a choice, do they want to spend their money on trying to bump you off, or do they stay with you? Now you are spending hours out of your week making calls to their corporate offices, trying to lock down their support. With your opponent raising money, the national party organizations consider putting you on their target lists and spending some of their money in attack ads. Now you are funding a whole field campaign, doing fundraisers and showing up at county fairs. With all the time spent campaigning, you are missing votes in the House and falling behind in your personal legislative projects.

When election day comes, you still win, and you win by your usual margin (55-45) but it was a much more draining experience because the NRA decided to prop up your opponent. Looking ahead at that long slog, you decide to cast the easy vote to let the universal background check bill die in committee. You put out a press release saying how it was unfortunate, but there just wasn’t the support to get it passed and you sleep like a baby.

For State Reps, it can be even more terrifying

For State Reps, it can be even more terrifying

Now, that’s what it is like for a congressperson. Imagine if you are a state Representative. Fifty thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket for a Congressional campaign, but for a state representative, that is a tsunami of money headed your way. You wouldn’t need a District Attorney to take you out, a scruffy-looking (but very articulate and well-informed) blogger could bump you off with fifty thousand in their back pocket.

Brief tangent: Does anyone have fifty thousand dollars they aren’t using? I live in the 42nd district.

But back to my point, you can imagine the fear that all that cash can create in a legislator. While it does not decide an election, it can dramatically change the race, making that vote deeply unpalatable.

The other “C” is consistency. Many red-state Democrats have used gun issues as a way to distinguish themselves from their party. “I might have a D next to my name, but I’m a red-blooded rural gun-toter like you.” Think I’m exaggerating? Check out Democrat Joe Manchin’s ad when he was running for Senate in West Virginia in 2010.

Manchin won by a solid 10%. His conservative gun credentials allow him cover to vote yes on a slew of other Democratic proposals. In a similar vein, blue-state Republicans use their opposition to gun safety to reassure their base. A classic example is Dave Reichert, whenever his party starts grumbling at him for voting for this or that environmental measure, he trots out some picture of him with the pistol on his hip looking like a sheriff out of the old west, rather than the 1990s. It is a way to send a message to his base that while he might pander a bit, he is still a hard-core conservative because he is packing heat.

When you have been playing these sorts of posturing games with voters for so long, it makes it very difficult to suddenly come out in support of gun safety. It also destroys whatever weight that posturing held in the future. What’s the point of airing ads about how awesome you look with a rifle in your hand when you just voted to enact safety measures as a result of deadly shootings?

The Bottom Line: Between the effect of NRA cash and the danger of undoing your credibility, most legislators will pick the path of least resistance. The only way to change that equation is to financially support those courageous few who campaign on gun safety, and remind your elected officials that Americans want universal background checks, and that weapons of war have no place in our neighborhoods. By applying public pressure, we can shift the value of posturing on gun issues and hopefully get some common sense legislation passed.



  1. Your analysis makes a lot of sense politically. My take is that the Legislative process – whether Representative or Senator – is influenced not only by money but by FEAR. It is shameful that people aren’t a bigger part of the equation when polls show they want all of the regulations ( a terrible word for conservative!) that President Obama has requested.
    The NRA needs to be annihilated; meaning shrunk up to nothing. They offer only sick and exaggerated arguments which reasonable people understand to be just that. Getting elected or reelected is a big deal for sure BUT people are elected to do a JOB for the people they represent. And, WE need to do our JOB too.

  2. Riley – I respect your optimism but my working hypothesis is that the federal system is so corrupt (systematically corrupt, that is!) that to expect a sensible result out of its machinations is futile. The majority of our “representatives” represent only the entities that buy them their jobs (and how is this not systematic bribery?), and there are only two factions of the same party on most essential issues (other than emotive issues stressed to divide us from ourselves). Who cares if a style of rifle is not outlawed when the President has asserted, and acted on his assertion, that he can lawfully assassinate a US citizen with no due process? And also refused to provide his legal justification, which therefore amounts to secret law. I mean, it’s hard for this immigrant to believe that this country ever had a revolution, considering its government has implemented far worse than the British ever did, and the ever-vanishing yeomen are supine and ignorant and brainwashed by the most sophisticated propaganda apparatus ever devised. The editors of Pravda were pikers compared to the evil geniuses who run the teevee on behalf of the war profiteers..

    Nope – not for me the hand-wringing and letter writing – no never no more. I’ve come to agree with Grover Norquist that the only solution to this cesspool of corruption at the heart of our empire of oil is to starve it. The rich have already figured out how to avoid funding the apparatus that serves them – with their 15% flat tax rate on their millions, and corporate funds sequestered offshore safe from tax. The government can only print money for so long before they try to steal our social security funds and maybe, just maybe, that will spark an outcry that will put the fear of headlessness into our rulers.

  3. Riley – one note on the NRA: They have recommended that schools, strapped for cash and struggling to provide a decent public education, should take money away from education to hire someone whose only job is to sit around and carry a gun. How is it that a person who recommends something so patently stupid and wasteful is accorded prime-time news coverage?

    Bring back Cadet programs in schools, rather. Hire veterans to train students in the care and use of weapons, and basic self-defense. I mean, wouldn;t this be something actually useful, unlike hiring an armed guard to stand around and do nothing, like Bank of America did in response to the Occupy movement?

  4. Riley, just go back and fix the margins of your blog. I will comment on content another time when I can read it all. Thank you.

    • It is showing up decently on my screen but I will see if there is some compatibility issue. Is it just this blog post that is hard to read?

  5. Stuff like this doesn’t help either:

  6. […] Growth Management Act? Befuddled by what happened to the State Legislature this year? Wondering why Gun Safety is so difficult to get passed? I break it down for […]

  7. […] For more “Keep it Simple, Sweeney” explanations of local political issues, check out some of these articles: Bellingham Waterfront 101, what is the Growth Management Act, and why can’t we pass gun legislation? […]

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