Skip to main content

One way to defeat the NRA

By Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Jens Ludwig, Special to CNN
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 2045 GMT (0445 HKT)
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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT