Why America Can't Pass Gun Control

Hint: It's not the NRA or a gun-loving culture.

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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., is the latest grisly episode in what has become a muted debate in the United States: what to do about gun violence and well-armed mass murderers. But we will make a prediction: Even in the face of this national tragedy, President Obama will have little success enacting substantive gun control.

Here's why: Obama can read the political map as well as anyone, and he knows that, just as in the past after previous brutal tragedies, the politics of gun control rest on complicated terrain. Many gun control advocates blame the lack of policy action on America's gun-loving culture and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), but that's too simplistic. Already in the wake of the Newtown carnage we have seen a slew of pundits drawing the wrong conclusions, just as they have after previous tragedies.

Sure, Americans like their guns more than other nations, but polls often have shown a majority of Americans wanting more gun control, with two-thirds calling for more regulation following the Columbine massacre in 1999. But the political system - including the Democratic Party -- has failed to respond. And it's not because Democrats and Obama are afraid of the NRA's deep pockets, as so many pundits are wrongly concluding. Quite the contrary, the NRA has money because it is powerful, not the other way around. And the NRA is powerful because it is clever at working the clunky architecture of our political system, which gives immense clout to a tiny slice of swing voters in a handful of congressional districts.

To understand the importance of this factor, Obama and gun control advocates have to grapple with the fact that Mitt Romney carried 228 out of 435 House districts (52.4 percent) despite losing the national popular vote to Obama by 4 points. According to an analysis by FairVote, the median House district (the 218th) is one that leans 52 percent Republican. Cook Political Report analysis found that of the 234 Republicans elected to the 435-seat U.S. House in November, fully 219 came from districts that were carried by Mitt Romney. That means that these Republicans don't need to worry much about challenges from the left or accommodating the president over the next two years. It also means that Democrats will have a very steep uphill climb to retake the House in 2014, since their candidates would have to run well ahead of their presidential nominee in at least a dozen Republican-leaning districts.

Just like our recent presidential election was settled in only a handful of battleground states, control of the U.S. House of Representatives comes down to only about 35 districts -- fewer than 10 percent of the 435 districts -- every two years. That gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing districts, many of which are rural and conservative-leaning. This set-up also gives enormous power to the NRA, because many NRA members live in these rural swing districts.

So the Democrats and Obama know that the NRA doesn't have clout because it has lots of money -- it spent $18 million in congressional elections in 2012 -- but the contrary. The NRA has money because it has clout. And it has clout because it has a lot of votes in key battleground House districts and battleground states voting for president and U.S. senators.

Back in 2000, Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist summed it up nicely, saying, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their 'control' position?" Though many voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn't really motivate them when they go to the polls. "But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."

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