Supporters of gun control must be more like the NRA in order to beat it

Supporters of gun control must be more like the NRA in order to beat it
© Getty Images

When I was in Congress in 1994, I voted for the ban on assault weapons. A few months later, my time as a member of Congress was over. After 18 years in the House, I lost largely because of that vote. I would vote for that bill again in a heartbeat. But for those fighting for gun restrictions now, especially the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, let my experience be a lesson.

The power of the National Rifle Association does not come from its money. It comes from the intensity, single mindedness and commitment to civic participation by its members. I certainly saw some of that in the voices and passion of young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but can it be sustained?

ADVERTISEMENT
In my last term in Congress, I had a huge legislative victory in product liability protection for small airplane manufacturers. I saved thousands of job of my constituents by passing this bill. Soon after the law was signed, Cessna reopened its single-engine aircraft assembly line in Kansas. The media back home had covered this extensively.

I thought I would be greeted as a hero when I went out on the campaign trail. But that wasn’t the case. Many of the people in my district were avid gun owners, and the NRA, which was founded in 1871 and has informed its members about gun laws since 1934, had made sure its membership knew how I voted on the assault weapons ban.

I will never forget when I was out knocking on doors and I stopped by the home of a worker at one of those aircraft plants. He shook my hand and said, “Dan, you saved my job.” So you can imagine my surprise when the next thing he said to me was, “I can’t vote for you in the coming election.”

Shocked, I asked him why and his answer was simple. “Guns,” he said. He went on to tell me, in so many words, that using firearms to hunt and shoot targets was his favorite hobby. But more than that, it was part of his cultural identity. He said he felt that my vote was the first stop on the way to confiscating all guns and banning future sales.

When I said that I wasn’t interested in taking his guns away from him, and only wanted to stop the sale of assault weapons, he firmly told me that it was not my business to tell him what kinds of guns he should be able to purchase and use. Over the next several weeks, I met many other constituents just like him. After the election was over, the results showed that my support had tanked in areas with high gun ownership.

So what does this mean for the current gun debate? First, if you want to push lawmakers to enact gun restrictions, you need to know what you’re up against. I have seen a lot of commentary and social media about NRA contributions to lawmakers. The NRA does make campaign contributions, but that isn’t what makes it one of the most powerful lobbies in America.

It’s because the NRA has several million single-issue voters, who only care about protecting their essentially unfettered right to buy and use any type of gun. Those voters turnout for elections small and large. People who love guns have hunting and shooting clubs and gun shows that provide them regular opportunities to get together and talk about their passion. The NRA makes sure that these voters know where lawmakers stand on the one issue they all care about.

The country may finally be reaching a tipping point on the gun debate, or this may end up being just like every other horrific mass shooting. The difference will be in what level of stubborn and unrelenting commitment and the degree of organization and purpose the next generation of leaders for responsible gun regulation can muster.

The students leading the charge in the wake of Parkland are passionate about making sure that they and all future classes of children can go to school without fear of being shot or killed. I think these kids are living up to an American ideal of citizenship and civic participation. But social media has its limits, and condemning lawmakers who accept NRA contributions as the root cause of gun deregulation misses the point.

Take it from me, a former member of Congress who lost the vote of a man whose job I helped save. Supporters of gun restrictions need to become more like the NRA if they wish to beat the NRA.

Dan Glickman served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now vice president of the Aspen Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.