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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Gun control debate shows how motivated minorities dominate US politics and policy

Hussein Ibish on the Parkland shooting, the subsequent student uprising and whether it will result in meaningful gun control measures 

Students across the US participated in walkouts last week to protest gun violence, a month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Florida. John Minchillo / AP
Students across the US participated in walkouts last week to protest gun violence, a month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Florida. John Minchillo / AP

After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, teenagers throughout the United States are trying to seize the initiative on a major public policy matter. Anyone who wants to understand American politics should take a good look into this revealing window into the system’s internal mechanisms.

American governmental decision-making is, simultaneously, exceptionally straightforward and unbelievably complex. The secret of the American system is that there’s no secret. It’s pretty much all on TV. There's no cabal or tiny ruling faction calling the shots, either overtly or behind-the-scenes.

Even the Trump administration, which is the executive branch of the federal government, doesn't work like that – despite the enormous executive authority vested in the president personally and the fact that Mr Trump runs his White House like a kind of medieval court. But even there, decision-making is usually complex and practical authority is diffused.

When the aperture is widened to include Congress, the courts and all state and local governments, the lines become even more blurred. And, in reality, the decision-making process includes innumerable additional inputs from corporate and other moneyed interests, think tanks and policy groups, ideological factions, civil society in all its forms, academia and dozens of other points of pressure on any set of issues.

Which brings us back to the uprising among millions of teenagers over gun safety. Simply put, American children are sick of being murdered in their schools and are literally demanding that the adults who run the country begin to restrict, even just a little bit, the virtually limitless access to military-style weapons that allows lunatics to routinely massacre scores of people in mere minutes.

They’ve certainly seized control of the debate, captured the public imagination and inspired the country through eloquent advocacy and stirring activism, including a mass walkout from the schools last week, which was the closest thing Americans have seen to a student strike in anyone's memory.

Moreover, there is solid public support throughout the country for enhanced gun control and overwhelming majorities back limited measures like universal background checks for buying assault weapons and limiting the access to the most potent instruments of death by convicted criminals, the mentally ill or those too young to drink alcohol (to mention just a few categories).

You'd be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that significantly strengthened gun-control measures are very likely, if not inevitable.

But you'd be wrong.

Just because the American system is open and there is no ruling clique doesn't mean that strong majorities, even when led by an inspiring movement – in this case as compelling as children who don't wish to be gunned down in their classrooms, no less – will get their way.

On the contrary, it is the very openness of the American system, particularly the First Amendment-guaranteed "right to petition the government for redress of grievances", that results in hyper-motivated minorities, even relatively tiny ones, becoming hyper-empowered and, indeed, decisive on the very narrow issues to which they are devoted.

The National Rifle Association and the rest of the pro-gun lobby have consistently won the day and are likely to prevail again. They may make some trivial concessions about attachments that turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic ones and other minor tinkering. But they will circle the wagons, hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Then, when most Americans, who will still be in favour of increased gun control, have moved on to other topics, they will remain focused on demonising and opposing even the most limited and sensible measures.

Not all sentiments are equally potent. Commitment and consistency are the keys for a determined minority to defeat a generalised majority. Most people favour sensible gun control measures, but they're not going to give much of their money to achieve that or grant or withhold their votes to candidates on that issue alone. Obsessive, dedicated, single-issue donors and voters will. That’s how they consistently win over politicians.

Therefore, in the American system, the political influence of one gun fanatic can be greater than that of 10,000 sensible people. Only when the general public, or another hyper-empowered minority group (especially a wealthy one), becomes as determined to secure gun control as the gun lobby is to oppose it will any such legislation become practically possible.

There are analogous phenomena in foreign policy, of course. For decades, the Cuban-American lobby ensured Washington maintained an embargo on Cuba the general public knew was ridiculous. They were a tiny subset of the population, but they were, crucially, the only ones who really cared, so they got their way.

Jewish-American groups were so successful at supporting Israel, even before they were joined by the evangelical Christians, and so unopposed by effective rivals, that Israel became effectively a domestic, rather than a foreign policy, issue.

Will the Parkland shooting and student uprising result in meaningful gun control measures? Possible, but unlikely.

So, this gun control debate is a fascinating case study in American decision-making. There is no ruling faction simply deciding things. And majority public opinion is rarely decisive. The pivotal factor in the American system, at least usually, is highly motivated minorities.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC

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