Skip to main content

One way to defeat the NRA

By Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig, Special to CNN
updated 3:45 PM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Jens Ludwig: Use behavioral economics to fight the NRA
  • Mesquita, Ludwig: The key is to turn a single action into a long-term commitment
  • One way is for people to sign up for automatic deductions to a fund that reduces NRA's clout
  • Mesquita, Ludwig: Through such an action, America may see true policy changes on gun control

Editor's note: Ethan Bueno de Mesquita is a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago. Jens Ludwig is the McCormick Foundation professor and director of the University of Chicago's Crime Lab.

(CNN) -- The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has prompted the Obama administration to consider new gun laws, like banning high-capacity magazines. Up until now, this -- along with other policy changes -- has in part been hindered by the National Rifle Association, which has fought to keep gun laws lax despite the fact that most of the American public support reasonable gun legislation.

While this time might be different, there are reasons to suspect this tragedy could end like the others -- with nothing changed. However, if gun control proponents were clever they could use new insights from behavioral economics to get the best of the NRA.

The core reason the NRA seems to have a stranglehold on American politics is known in economics and political science as the "collective action problem." A majority of the public supports common-sense restrictions on firearms. But because the numerous gun control supporters do not care as deeply as the much smaller share of gun control opponents, they are far less mobilized.

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita
Ethan Bueno de Mesquita

One of us has seen firsthand what it's like to go around testifying at legislative bodies about gun policy. Over the years, the stands are filled with gun control opponents. Gun control supporters are largely absent.

Jens Ludwig
Jens Ludwig

Highly visible tragedies periodically inspire what former President Richard Nixon would call the "silent majority" to act. The problem is that action is difficult to sustain over the long run by a large number of people who also care about other things as well.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Just look at the Million Mom March. On Mother's Day in 2000, an estimated 750,000 people marched on the National Mall in Washington to call for tougher gun laws. The rally was in reaction to the tragic shootings at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center and Columbine High School, which both occurred the year before. The grass-roots reaction was supposed to usher in an era of common sense policies to curb gun violence.

But then people got busy and distracted, and things fizzled. In 2001, the rally attracted only about 100 supporters. Today, federal gun laws are actually weaker than a decade ago. For example, the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 and Congress has not renewed it.

Mark Kelly: I'd like to talk to the NRA
NRA president: Focus on mentally ill
Not afraid of the NRA

Right now there is a brief window of opportunity for people who feel passionately about gun control to do something. The key for gun control proponents is to figure out how to turn people's willingness to take a single action in a moment into an effortless and sustainable long-term commitment.

Here's one way to defeat the NRA: Ask people who are upset about this recent shooting to go online and sign up for automatic, monthly deductions to a fund devoted to breaking the grip of the NRA.

For every dollar the NRA spends in helping a political candidate, this new fund would spend $2 to help the opponent (whether in a primary race or general election). Many politicians are currently afraid that opposing the NRA would lead the organization to stop providing their campaigns with either cash contributions or in-kind support (such as advertisements and other forms of advocacy). Creating a fund that guaranteed a two-to-one match of NRA support -- but for the other side, ideally who supports stronger gun control -- would weaken the NRA's political clout.

And how much should gun control proponents ask people to pledge? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent about $20 million on political activities in the 2012 election cycle; including a little more than $1 million on direct campaign contributions and around $8.5 million on independent campaigns in support of congressional candidates.

This might sound like a lot of money, but it is equal to only about 2% of what Obama raised in 2012 and less than one-tenth of one percent of the net worth of the NRA's most vocal critic: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Suppose Bloomberg agreed to give one-tenth of one percent of his net worth each year, and gun control groups asked people to pledge the same percentage of their net worth. The cost to most people to match would be not more than $10 or $20 per month. While people could opt out any time, most people would never even notice this small automatic deduction. This strategy will work because it changes the default behavior of busy people from political passivity to activism.

A few election cycles might be needed for the NRA and politicians to see the consequences of such a pledge. But when it happens -- when the NRA's grip is weakened significantly -- then perhaps America will see true policy changes on gun control through the active support of its public.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT