Senator Marco Rubio just gave America and the grieving students and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a civics lesson. But I’m afraid that many in the classroom weren’t paying attention.
No doubt by now you’ve seen or read about the live town hall hosted by CNN in which survivors and parents of the shooting at the Parkland, Florida high school confronted lawmakers and representatives of the NRA. No doubt you’ve read about the young man, Cameron Kasky, who schooled his Republican Senator when Cameron pointedly asked Senator Marco Rubio if he would promise to refuse future contributions from the NRA.
“Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” Cameron asked.
Senator Rubio declined.
The crowd booed.
Cameron pushed back.
And Senator Rubio, over the noise of the crowd and over the obvious frustration of courageous young Cameron, said “The influence of these groups comes NOT from money. The influence comes from the millions of people that agree with the agenda—the millions of Americans that support the NRA.”
Pay attention here. Because Senator Rubio was trying to tell us something. And if we heed his words perhaps we can avoid another potentially tragic mistake.
Senator Rubio said, in essence: The power of the NRA, unlike other types of donors, comes not from money, but from the size and voting habits of its membership.
Yes, the NRA is a powerful lobby. But it’s not because of the money that it pours into candidates’ coffers. The NRA actually contributes much less in financial assistance to members of Congress than many other organizations and individuals.
Then what makes the NRA so powerful?
An insightful article in Politico Magazine clearly explains it: “It’s not the money. It’s because the NRA has built a movement that has convinced its followers that gun ownership is a way of life, central to one’s freedom and safety, that must be defended on a daily basis.” Why the NRA Always Wins describes the strategy that the NRA uses to build the movement and ensure its political power. The gun industry has created an entire way of life in which gun ownership is central to its identity.
The association isn’t merely a lobbying group or even an organization of like-minded members: it’s a movement. The real power of the NRA comes from the fact that it has cultivated its millions of members into loyal regular voters who vote based on a single issue: gun rights. In fact, the NRA could withdraw its financial support from any given lawmaker without making much of an impact on their election chances at all.
Why does this matter? Because gun control advocates are focused on the wrong thing.
They view everything through the prism of campaign donations. “Follow the money!” they preach. They try to shame lawmakers: “To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you,” said MSD High School senior Emma Gonzalez. They educate voters about campaign donations: “Go to opensecrets.org and see whether your legislator takes money from the NRA!” They advise us to write our legislator and demand that they stop taking NRA “blood money.”
Follow the money? Why? Who cares about the money. We already know everything we need to know about these folks. Just listen to what they say.
Rubio and other Republicans don’t oppose gun control because the NRA gives them money. They do it because they need the votes of NRA members to win elections. So on the campaign trail and in town halls and debates and speeches across the nation, candidates speak to NRA members in words they understand. And NRA members know what to listen for when a candidate speaks.
“I support the Second Amendment.” “The Constitution guarantees a person’s right to own a firearm.” “People need to be able to protect themselves.” “People like to hunt.” And “Americans need to be able to stand up to their government” are all ways of saying “I will not vote to curtail any person’s ability to buy guns.” When NRA voters hear that, they know—money or not—that this lawmaker is on their side.
Senator Rubio could have vowed never to take another dime from the NRA (and other candidates may actually take that vow in if they feel enough pressure) but he still wouldn’t change his position on gun control. He said it himself: I’ve held [these positions] since the day I entered office in the city of West Miami as an elected official. People buy into my agenda and I do support the Second Amendment.”
That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
And that’s all NRA members need to hear.
They’ll vote for him. And he will do their bidding.
If you’d followed the money, you would have been fooled into thinking that at some point he might be willing to consider some small measure that might restrict the unfettered access to guns. But he WON’T.
Republicans will never support meaningful gun control because they need the support of voters for whom guns are a way of life. They are beholden to the gun voters.
There is only one way to solve America’s gun problem. We must vote only for people who promise to support meaningful gun reform. Listen to what they say when they’re campaigning. And listen to Marco Rubio. It’s not about the money.