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Dear Senators, Stop Listening to Your NRA Constituents

Getty/Drew Angerer

For all the talk of AR-15s and high-capacity magazines since the Newtown shootings, you’d think from watching the gun-control debate in Washington that the scariest weapons in the land are the humble telephone and e-mail. Every day seems to bring another report of a senator or congressman who was inclined to support serious gun-control legislation but then had second thoughts after nothing more than a deluge of ding-a-lings and inbox pings. It’s almost as if these poor fellows had never been the target of a concerted special-interest push before.

Take Senator Tom Coburn, the conservative but independent-minded Republican from Oklahoma, who was a key member of a bipartisan group forging a deal to expand the background check requirement to the huge swath of gun show and private sales that currently happen without any checks at all. As the New York Times reported last week, Coburn started to cool on the compromise after getting swamped by calls from Oklahomans who belong to Gun Owners of America, a group that is even more fervent than the NRA:

Within days, [Gun Owners of America's staff], working from a nondescript space in a squat office building off the Beltway here—there isn’t even a nameplate on the door—was on the phone with supporters of his organization in Oklahoma. The group’s members were encouraged to inundate Mr. Coburn with e-mails and calls and to otherwise make it exceedingly clear to the senator that an enhanced background check law would not be tolerated.

It wasn’t long until Mr. Coburn, a gun rights advocate, had backed away from negotiations with Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, securing at least a temporary victory for gun rights activists and frustrating advocates of new gun safety laws.... Mr. Coburn attributed his retreat, which deeply damaged the prospects of the bill, to a plan that would have required private gun sellers to keep records. But the gun group believes its campaign contributed to his decision. “His staff admitted that it kind of irritated the senator,” Mr. Pratt said. “We were told, ‘He’s getting tired of this.’ But when we hear complaints like that, we know we are close to success. We are happy he changed his mind.”

Coburn spokesman John Hart on Monday disputed the impression left by the Times story, saying in an e-mail that it “greatly exaggerated [Gun Owners of America’s] role in the debate.” “Dr. Coburn doesn’t take orders from any special interest group and he’s still hopeful he can reach a bipartisan agreement,” he said.

But another senator backing away from supporting strong legislation eagerly pointed to calls from constituents who belong to gun rights groups. From Saturday’s Washington Post:

Sen. Mark Begich declared a “sea change” in the politics of gun control immediately after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., telling his local newspaper that he would not hesitate to buck the powerful National Rifle Association. But in the months since, the gun rights group has made itself impossible for the Alaska Democrat, and many other lawmakers, to resist....

Over the past two weeks, while Congress has been in recess, Begich said he was approached repeatedly by constituents who echoed NRA views, telling him not to, in his words, “mess with our gun rights” or “ban anything.”… “The NRA is one of the most important groups in my state,” said Begich, one of several Democrats from conservative states who are up for reelection next year.

I find these sorts of rationalizations genuinely bewildering. The ability of the NRA and smaller gun-rights groups to mobilize their members to lobby elected officials has been an established fact for years—this is the “intensity gap” that gun-control advocates have long bemoaned, whereby an ardent minority has been able to make its presence felt more strongly on the issue than a silent majority that may support sensible gun control but doesn’t necessarily lobby on the issue or prioritize it on Election Day.

The whole point about Newtown changing the debate—a notion that Begich initially ascribed to—was that such an utterly horrifying event had the potential to trump the realities of the gun debate: that even though gun-control opponents were the most committed and agitated the loudest, support for stricter regulation would expand in the broader electorate, giving elected officials the confidence to act. And that has happened. Support for expanded background checks is approaching Soviet-like majorities in polls. And yet, senators like Begich get cold feet because they are getting a lot of calls from NRA members, which they knew was going to happen—because it always has! It’s not a mystery: The NRA tells its members to call. They call.

What’s behind this sort of rationalization? The more charitable explanation is that these elected officials are succumbing to something that many of us do, a tendency to lose sight of context and scale. That is, to overvalue things that we see directly in front of us, without taking into account that they are but a tiny proportion of a much larger whole. Coburn represents 3.8 million people and Begich (whose office did not respond to my request for comment) represents 730,000, but if you’ve got dozens of people calling up on one issue in a given day, it’s easy to make that sliver out to be more than it really is, because it’s actual people on the phone with real names and specific claims and arguments and threats. This bias—Nate Silver surely has a word for it—is undoubtedly exacerbated by the ever-greater disconnect between our super-wealthy politicians and their increasingly tuned-out constituents. What better way for a senator or congressman who senses this disconnect to correct for it than to place great weight on the contacts that he actually does have with constituents? This is the same dynamic that led congressmen to overvalue the voices of those who turned out for town hall meetings on the health care law in the summer of 2009. You may have 700,000 people living in your district, but it’s the ones who are shouting in your face that you tend to remember most. This is why it’s so important for gun-control groups, with their new deep-pocketed backing from Mike Bloomberg, to counter with campaigns of their own, even if it takes more effort to rustle up the activists.

The less charitable explanation, of course, is that elected officials who buckle in the face of well-organized special-interest campaigns simply have the backbone of an earthworm. But the problem with chalking up this behavior to sheer cowardly expedience is that it is not at all clear that politicians are taking such a huge risk in voting against the gun lobby. There are plenty of Democrats who have survived in red or purple states despite getting lousy ratings from the NRA, such as Florida’s Bill Nelson. (The calculation is obviously different for Republicans like Coburn who have more to fear from a primary challenge than a general election loss, than it is for Democrats like Begich, who ought to realize that most passionate gun-rights voters are unlikely to vote for him no matter what.) And as I myself have written on several occasions, there is a case to be made that the supposed big victories for the gun lobby—the 1994 Republican sweep, Al Gore’s “loss” in 2000, were in fact much less clearly linked to the gun issue than the NRA et al would have us believe.

That is, politicians who are backing away from serious gun-control reform now out of worry about the next election may be making a flawed calculation based on bad history. Then again, even if it was based on more solid speculation, that would not theoretically keep them from voting for substantive reform simply because it was, you know, the right thing to do.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis