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On the Political Power of the Gun Rights and Gun Control Lobbies

- December 15, 2012

Here are some relevant studies.

Here is a 2006 overview of the National Rifle Association by Kelly Patterson and Matthew Singer (from this volume; hat tip to Burdett Loomis).  It details the growth in NRA membership over time and the benefits it provides to members.  It describes the political activities of the NRA, including campaign contributions, up through 2004.  Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

In another poll taken in March of 2005, 73 members of the House identified the NRA as the most powerful lobbying group on Capitol Hill.  However, in November 2005 when 169 members of Congress were asked which lobby their party would “buck more often if the group weren’t so powerful,” the NRA was the most frequent response among Republicans and the second most frequent response among Democrats.

This 1990 paper (gated) by Laura Langbein and Mark Lotwis and a follow-up paper by Langbein examined congressional votes on the Firearm Owners Protection Act.  Campaign contributions from the NRA were largely targeted at pro-gun members to begin with, but had the effect of strengthening their support for this bill.  Contributions from Handgun Control were similarly targeted only at members who already favored gun control and did not appear to matter.  But lobbying by gun control forces and police organizations did succeed in weakening support for the bill among some pro-gun members.

The power of pro- and anti-gun control forces may be more limited with regard to driving news coverage, however.  In this 2001 study by Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell, they studied interest group frames and media frames surrounding the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban (1988-96).  They found that the news media’s frames were largely independent of those promoted by the NRA or Handgun Control. The balance of pro- or anti-gun control frames in the media was instead most strongly influenced by the salience of the issue to the public.  The larger the fraction of Americans identifying crime and violence as the most important issue facing the country, the more pro-gun control the news tilted.  This suggests that media frames were mainly geared around the attitudes of news consumers.

This 2000 study (gated) by Marcia Godwin and Jean Reith Schroedel looked at the adoption of local gun control ordinances in California in the 1990s.  They argue that a key element of the pro-gun control campaign was a new “policy image” — arguably, a frame — that focused on the public health consequences of gun violence.  They cite the efforts by the California Wellness Foundation’s Violence Prevention Initiative.  One quote from the Foundation’s annual report in 1996 illustrates:

Today communities no longer accept the conventional view that violence is simply a crime. In the past four years, Californians have rallied around a preventive health strategy against violence that goes after the main agent of this disease-handguns-and the hosts- and hopeless young people-in ways proven over decades to successfully stem epidemics. The Foundation did not begin this effort; it rose out of communities that have long struggled, often in isolation, to defeat society’s most virulent virus. But this initiative did help inform the public debate and embolden communities to take action.

Here is a December 2011 blog post by Nate Birkhead on the prospects for gun control in the wake of the Giffords shooting.  He is pessimistic, and many things have not changed since he wrote.  He rightly focuses on dynamics in Congress. I am seeing too much focus on Obama right now by advocates of gun control, and too little on how to build a winning coalition in Congress and especially the House.  Seth Masket weighs in.

Please leave additional cites to relevant research, with links if possible, in comments.