Whenever in doubt over an answer, think politics. The answer usually always lies there .
Laurent Bouton, Paola Conconi, Francisco J Pino, Maurizio Zanard have written a paper looking at this whole issue of gun regulation not getting implemented in USA. Despite 90% of people opposing gun ownership and wanting stricter regulation, the regulation does not come through. And hence the Obama question – how can something wioth 90% support not happen?
The authors explain the answers in this must read voxeu post:
The reluctance of US congressmen to support gun-control regulations, despite the fact that most US citizens are in favour of them, has long been a puzzle in the literature. Schuman and Presser (1978) referred to this puzzle as the “gun-control paradox”. As argued by Goss (2006), one possible explanation is that “American gun owners are intense, well organized, and willing to vote for or against candidates purely on the basis of their position on gun control”. They are a “highly motivated, intense minority”, who prevail over a “relatively apathetic majority”.
In a recent paper (Bouton et al. 2013), we formalise this idea and provide empirical evidence that electoral incentives lead politicians to take a pro-gun stance, in line with the interests of a minority of the electorate. We propose a theoretical model in which politicians vote on a primary and a secondary policy issue. The former is an issue that a majority of voters cares relatively more about, such as the level of public spending. The latter is meant to capture gun control – an issue that a minority cares more intensely about. The minority may also be better-informed about the incumbent’s choices on the secondary policy issue. In this setting, citizens have only one vote to make their representatives accountable on a bundle of policy issues. Politicians may thus pander to the minority on the secondary issue, without losing too much support from the majority. The model delivers three testable predictions:
- First, politicians should be more likely to take a pro-gun stance at the end of their terms, when their policy choices have a bigger impact on their re-election prospects.
- Second, only politicians who are in favour of gun regulations and are concerned with re-election should ‘flip-flop’ on gun control, since they face a tension between their policy preferences and their re-election motives.
- Finally, election proximity should have no impact on the voting behaviour of politicians who are against gun regulations and/or are not concerned about re-election.
The results show yes it is politicians (read Senators) who do not really let this regulation come into being:
- First, the oldest generation of senators (i.e. those facing re-election within two years) is more likely to vote pro-gun than the previous two.
- Second, only Democratic senators flip-flop on gun control – in the last two years of their term, the probability that they vote pro-gun increases by between 15.3% and 18.9%.
- Finally, election proximity has no impact on the voting behaviour of senators who are not concerned with re-election, either because they are retiring or because they hold very safe seats.
The authors control for financial lobbying and still see the most important factor is re-election:
Obviously, financial pressure by lobby groups can also contribute to the lack of congruence between politicians’ choices and the preferences of the majority. Indeed, our empirical results confirm that senators who receive larger amounts of campaign contributions from gun-rights lobbies are more likely to take a pro-gun stance. Still, financial pressure by lobby groups cannot account for the pro-gun effect of election proximity on senators’ voting behaviour – even after controlling for the contributions received by individual senators throughout their terms, we find that they are more likely to vote pro-gun when they are closer to facing re-election. The power of gun-rights lobbies like the NRA may thus not only lie in their deep pockets, but also in the fact that their members are single-issue voters.3
In principle, citizens’ initiatives could help to achieve better congruence between citizens’ preferences and policy outcomes, by unbundling different policy issues (Besley and Coate 2008).4 In particular, stricter gun controls could be introduced in US states that allow ordinary citizens to place new legislation on a ballot for approval or rejection.5 However, even in the case of citizens’ initiatives, the intensity of voters’ preferences matters. For instance, organising initiatives is very costly both in terms of time and money, and citizens who strongly oppose gun regulations may be more willing to incur such costs. In addition, pro-gun citizens may be more willing to incur the costs of voting (e.g. spending time to register, rearranging work schedules, getting to the polls, and gathering information on the candidates). Thus an intense minority can still prevail over an apathetic majority.