Thursday, August 08, 2019

Gun Lobby Example: Here's Why The Public Interest Regularly Gets Sabotaged

It became clear to me, while teaching about ethics and 'the public interest' that there were good explanations why the public interest loses out regularly to special interests.

Single Issue vs. Many Issues
Each special interest is focused narrowly on one topic - developers, airlines, doctors, unions, auto manufacturers, the  mining industry, oil industry, etc - are narrowly focused on lobbying for what is most important to them.

Protecting the public interest against all those many well funded private interests, is more difficult.  It's hard to keep up with all the threats to the public interest because the public interest is much broader and more generalized.  The public has interests in a clean environment, fair treatment of consumers, work place safety, good education, auto safety, and on and on.  Protecting all these against corporations looking for less regulation, higher profits, as well as tax benefits, is hard.  There's just too much to keep up with.

This LA Times article by George Skelton about the gun lobby and the gun control interests of the public illustrates this basic dilemma for those interested in protecting the public interest.

From George Skelton, LA Times:
Sure, voters tell pollsters Congress should pass legislation to toughen up background checks on gun buyers. Most even want to ban military-style assault weapons.
But gun control is far down the list of voters’ priorities. Many other policy issues rank higher: immigration, jobs, schools, climate change.…
So after every shooting massacre, when more innocent people are murdered by some wacko with a firearm designed for mass killing, there’s tough talk, screaming and flailing for a few days. Then everyone calms down and snoozes until the next slaughter.
Politicians — mainly Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress — don’t feel constant pressure from gun control supporters. These voters have been firing with cap pistols.
But the other side is rigidly committed. The gun zealots — those mesmerized by the power of firearms — tend to be “single-issue” voters who are inspired by the National Rifle Assn. Their No. 1 litmus test for any candidate is the politician’s position on gun rights.
Most Republicans and many moderate Democrats are scared silly and timidly vote against virtually all meaningful gun controls. That is, unless the congressional leader is a Republican, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Then the frightened politicians are spared from voting at all because the leader blocks the bill from the floor.
At least, that’s the way it has always been.

So there it is spelled out - while most people want some form of legislation to curb gun violence, it's one of many issues of interest.  They aren't all focused and ready to lobby hard on that single issue.

But gun lobbyists are focused on that one specific issue at the receipt of an email.

While I think this article makes that point clearly, I find Skelton's style a little loose.  Some examples:

1. " But gun control is far down the list of voters’ priorities. Many other policy issues rank higher: immigration, jobs, schools, climate change.…"
Well here's a summary of issues - first overall, then by different political shades.  The list comes from a Citizens Climate Lobby talk in November 2018 by

Click on image to enlarge and focus
I don't know where Skelton came up with his list of top issues, but this one is more statistically valid I suspect.

2.  "some wacko with a firearm"  - Sorry, this just perpetuates stereotypes of mass shooters as totally crazy folks.  Sure, anyone who mows down a bunch of people is not within the normal range of empathy, moral judgment, personal control, and perhaps other categories.  But given the characteristics of mass shooters listed in the previous post, they've mostly been abused or bullied and didn't have the kind of support most people get.  In that context, their behavior might not seem so irrational or crazy.  We need less clichéd ways of talking about these people so we can come up with effective ways of 1) not letting people get to this stage and 2) having systems in place that intervene when they start showing signs or even talking about shooting up folks.

3.  "mainly Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress"  - What the hell is a moderate Democrat?  I keep having to remind people that if Richard Nixon was in today's Congress he'd be labeled among the most liberal Democrats.  We got the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act, and a bunch of other things (Roe v Wade decision came down while he was president and he didn't yell and scream about it)  during his administration.  Yet he was seen in his day as conservative.  Moderate Democrats today are conservatives by 1960s-1970s standards.  Calling them moderates is a huge misnomer.

OK, I'm done.  No wait, I wanted to offer a possible option for the public interest.

The Citizens Climate Lobby is a public interest lobbying group (which I'm a member of) that is focusing very narrowly on one issue - getting a carbon fee and dividend law passed.  They've got chapters in almost every Congressional district so constituents can lobby - regularly, cordially, and with lots of information - their members of congress.  It's a good model.  If we had Citizens  XXXX Lobby for all of those issues on the chart above we could get a long way in blocking special interests whose favored legislation has harmful consequences on the public interest.


  1. Steve, I wish you were right that the citizens lobby model would work, but I don't think it will. (Case in point: despite the excellent lobbying effort, no carbon fee/dividend law is even a gleam in any lawmaker's eye.)

    One problem is that lobbying FOR something is a lot harder than lobbying AGAINST. People say they want something done about gun control but what? Republicans are (maybe) backing red flag laws, but many say that's just a band-aid. But what should we be lobbying for? Ban automatic weapons? Prohibitive tax on ammo? More background checks? No private gun sales at gun shows? etc, etc, etc, with proponents disagreeing among themselves as to what would be effective, what would be feasible, what would be possible. Meanwhile the NRA just has to say "no" to whatever is proposed and keep making contributions to congressional campaign funds.

    I was a committed member of the League of Women Voters for decades until I came to believe that there is no room in our current political system for "the informed participation of citizens in government," LWV's mantra. I think our system of representative government is fatally flawed unless we can find a way, through constitutional amendment or Ebola hitting the Supreme Court, to overturn Citizens United.

  2. It's not easy now, but CCL has a carbon fee and dividend bill (HR 763). The Climate Solutions Caucus has about 70 members including 22 Republicans. You can't give up on the important stuff. When the time is ripe, CCL has everything ready to go. All the research has been done and it's clear this is the best feasible way to cut the most carbon.

  3. I'll buy the champagne when that bill passes! Which will be right after my own dear senator lets the Senate consider protecting our elections from Russian hacking.

    I doubt whether the time is ever going to be ripe under our current setup, for climate change legislation, for gun control, for healthcare reform, for immigration, for whatever needs to be done. The system is broken.

    I hate to be a pessimist -- against my nature -- but there's little to make me feel good about how our government is being poisoned by the special interests, the racists, the demagogues.

    1. Kathy, today's monthly CCL meeting was a direct answer to your pessimism here. I'm going to post about it because it's an issue for a lot more people - feelings of powerlessness on things like this. In the meantime you can watch the meeting here: The intro starts about 3:30 and 's talk begins about 5:00. But you might want to listen to the first minutes anyway. I hope you'll find it as empowering as I did.


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