Marc Ambinder

5 reasons why gun control failed

Why did a relatively modest, very popular gun control bill fail? A lack of big-think words like "will" and "imagination"? Too little or too much intervention from the White House? Naw. Here are five of the many reasons:

1. An interest group imbalance 
The gun control lobby might have resources now that it didn't have in the past, but its relationship with most lawmakers is nothing like the NRA's. It has not only kept sustained pressure on Democrats and Republicans, but has also actively cultivated relationships with key constituencies in their districts. The NRA is able to generate a lot of smoke without much fire. And politicians will instinctively react to the political pressure that is available to them at moments in time. 

2. The disconnect between the tragedy and the proposed solutions 
Background checks for the mentally ill, a ban on certain types of semi-automatic weapons, and even magazine clip restrictions would not have prevented the tragedies. Undoubtedly, they might have helped prevent future tragedies, and probably would have provided momentum for tougher state measures. But the nexus of the factors — mental illness, gun culture, personal history — is too complex for solution. Lawmakers can get away with thinking that a "yes" vote would have not retrospectively helped to reduce pain and suffering. It's weird thinking, but it works.

3. The lies and distortions of the NRA
Washington still hesitates to use the "L" word, and even though the media generally favors gun control, it hesitates to call out the NRA for its lies. Further, whenever the media calls out a generally conservative cause on something, the issue polarizes, even if vast majorities of the American people putatively support the underlying policy that is being lied about.

4. The myth of the "Bargaining Chip" strategy.
Or, rather, its failure in this instance. Megan McArdle explains it best:

There's only so much that you can get out of a negotiation, and no matter where you start out, you aren't going to move beyond that. Academics who study this call it the Zone of Possible Agreement. In a traditional sales negotiation, it is defined by the highest possible price that the buyer is willing to offer, and the lowest possible price that the seller is willing to accept.

Say we're haggling over a new car. The car cost the dealer $14,000, and the fixed costs of the lot and so forth mean that he needs to make another $1,000 on the car to break even. His "reservation price" is $15,000. You are willing to pay as much as $18,000 but would of course prefer to get it for less. Which means that to make a deal, you are going to settle on a price somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000.

The dealer will probably price the car high — say, $20,000 — in order to get more money out of you. You will probably give him a lowball offer in order to pay less. But no offer that you make is going to allow you to pay $13,000 for the car; no price he sets will yield him a final sales price of $19,000. Those prices are outside the ZOPA, which means that one party will walk away rather than make a deal.

Can you move the boundaries of the ZOPA? Yes. In fact, Newtown did just that for gun controllers. But what professional negotiators understand, and gun rights activists apparently don't, is that your starting position is not what changes the ZOPA. Oh, there are rare instances where you happily discover that the other side wants something very much that you don't care about at all. But the stuff that actually shifts the ZOPA usually happens outside the negotiation: shifts in the legal climate, or public opinion, or some other factor.

In fact, by demanding too much, you can often worsen the chances for a deal. That's why negotiators typically start off with a price that's outside the ZOPA, but not so far outside that you shut down negotiations. [Daily Beast]

5. The structure of the American Republic
Rural parts of rural states, and rural states, have significantly disproportionate power when numbers matter. And given the polarization typically associated with gun control, it split right along the big populous urban metropolis / small rural town border. The sad truth is that Americans who oppose gun restrictions oppose it more fiercely than Americans who support gun restrictions. That energy matters, and is multiplied by the distorted political franchise given to less populous states.


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