How Gabrielle Giffords and Michael Bloomberg Can Succeed on Guns

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom gunfire has made eloquently terse, said it best. “If Congress won't change laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change members of Congress,” Giffords tweeted after 45 members of the Senate, in one of the most nakedly political and pusillanimous votes in years, came out against an eminently reasonable bill to close the gap in background checks to gun buyers.

She had it right. But changing the Senate's composition will take a peculiar combination of money and will that runs, literally, up against logic. Because it is practically a iron law of politics that the larger the interest group—in this case, the 90 percent of all Americans who want background checks—the less likely it will be able to mobilize against a smaller, more organized and passionate interest group, such as the National Rifle Association. In a pathbreaking 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, the late, great University of Maryland economist Mancur Olson explained why. Olson said that in large groups merely seeking a broader societal good, the concrete benefits of collective action are usually small compared to the amount of time people have to put into the effort. So the larger the group and the broader the cause, the less likely are people are to band together in determined pursuit of it. By contrast, the smaller the group and the smaller the cause, the more the group can unite members around an intensely held belief or cause—such as guns—and the more the individuals involved can benefit individually.

That’s why lobbies and special interests tend to rule Washington, whether for guns, Wall Street, or farm subsidies. And the broader, more diffuse national interest loses out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Issues that ignite—and sustain—a national passion can change everything. As was demonstrated vividly in Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Lincoln, even a hoary vested interest—in that case slavery—can become so politically incorrect almost overnight that anyone with a sliver of honor, or courage, finds they are just too embarrassed to support it any longer. In Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, the gun-control cause at last has someone with both passion and very deep pockets. In Giffords and the families of Sandy Hook, it has enduring and eloquent champions to rally around.

On Thursday, an enraged Bloomberg bluntly threatened the four Democratic senators who voted against the bill with defeat in 2014. His aides said Bloomberg would target them with negative ads. That must be at least a little bit scary.

If the determination and money is there, it can happen, defeating even the illogic of collective action. But only if prominent outsiders such as Bloomberg and Giffords lead the way. Frankly, despite the expressed outrage of President Obama and the Democratic caucus, it is doubtful they will throw all their resources and energy into making guns the central issue in 2014—not when such a determined and well-organized lobby as the NRA, forever adept at swaying elections, stands in their way. Both the president and the Democrats in Congress are too worried about who will gain control of the House and Senate. Sadly, Olson's logic holds true there.

One of the NRA-intimidated senators, Mark Begich of Alaska, a Democrat up for reelection next year who voted with three other Democrats and 41 Republicans against the amendment, whined afterward that"it’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment.” He's right. Unless that emotion never quite goes away.

The solution, as Giffords the savvy politician divined, is to ensure that Begich suffers his own emotional moment—when he gives his concession speech in 2014. Only that can change the calculus on guns.