You would think that an organization with some 4.5 million members would have less political power than a group that actually makes up a majority of the entire human population. But you would be mistaken.
2011 saw nearly 1,000 anti-women laws, and women continued to struggle in 2012. The National Rifle Association (NRA)? Not so much. From attempts to defund Planned Parenthood to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act being stalled in Congress to candidates like Todd “legitimate rape” Akin potentially unseating women legislators, women found themselves fighting for rights they thought they had long won.
Compare this to the National Rifle Association that mostly played political offense in 2012 and recently saw victory in Ohio. This is despite 2012 breaking the record for the most mass shootings in a single year in the U.S.
What gives? There are a number of factors that could help explain this anomaly.
Mission unity. The NRA has one primary mission: gun ownership advocacy. The same cannot be said of women’s groups. While groups like the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) and the League of Women Voters agree on many issues, they don’t necessarily have a shared mission. NWPC is focused on engaging pro-choice women to vote. The League of Women Voters is focused on engaging all women to vote. But what about pro-life voters? Those that engage in the process may undercut the work of NWPC. The NRA doesn’t have this problem.
Single-issue voting. Though it’s difficult to get an exact number, many voters are single-issue voters. The NRA has built a reputation (neither proven or disproven) around turning out single-issue gun voters. But women as a whole are not single-issue voters. Any number of issues could be the most important one to them in a given election, like how the economy was their priority this time around.
A Constitutional Amendment. The Second Amendment combined with case law like DC v. Heller are stronger weapons for the NRA than any gun could be. It’s compelling to think that the Founding Fathers established something as an inalienable right. While there are questions of interpretation surrounding it, the fact that the Second Amendment exists is a politically powerful tool. Women have the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing their right to vote, but it’s not an equally similar banner women can rally around except on attacks against women’s suffrage.
Women Are Not Identity Voters. This is a little similar to single-issue voting. Despite the sheer number of women voters, women don’t tend to vote for other women candidates simply because they are women. This is good in that it suggests women are voting for candidates who share their values not just their gender. But at the same time, since they have a demographic majority, it dilutes the political potential they would have if they were identity voters.
Polling. Guns are popular. Although 65% of Americans supported banning handguns after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in January last year, that had declined to just 44%. In fact, since Columbine, polling suggests Americans tend to favor more gun rights not less. Compare this to the abortion debate (just one aspect of women’s issues), only 41% of Americans are pro-choice and polling suggests America is still overall a pro-life country.
Uneven Representation. The NRA has vocal allies on both sides of the political aisle and arguably a majority of Congress lawmakers are pro-gun. For any given issue women care about, they may or not may not have a majority of advocates in office speaking on their behalf. It’s also important to note that while women made significant representative gains this election cycle, they are largely underrepresented politically, particularly in Congress. That means less voices for issues that they care about said in a perspective from someone who knows them firsthand.
The NRA is Ruthless. The NRA can be just as quick to turn on its supporters as it is to attack its enemies. In May, the NRA spent $155,000 to unseat the Former Chair of the Republican caucus in the Tennessee House of Representatives, Debra Maggart. Maggart had an “A+” rating from them, but she opposed a bad bill that would have allowed Tennesseans to keep guns inside locked cars. One bill is apparently all it takes. Maggart was made an example of and a reminder to all candidates regardless of party or level of government that the NRA has no room for disagreement.
The Power of Myth. Never underestimate the power of beliefs. Did you know the NRA spends millions of dollars on campaigns every cycle, and as former Congresswoman Maggart can attest to, their candidates almost never lose? Even The American President’s Andrew Sheppard has not been immune to its power, and he wasn’t even real. Of course, myths are characteristic of being untrue.
Women’s groups, especially this year, collectively spent more than the NRA and in 2012 were far more successful electorally. Planned Parenthood alone spent $5 million more in 2012. The rate of return for Planned Parenthood? 98%. The rate of return for the NRA? 11%.
Though none of these factors alone resolves the power discrepancy between the two groups, collectively they help paint a clear picture of what has made the political scene so difficult for women and yet so much easier for the NRA.
Now, the last two months have started to call this power difference into question. With women making greater gains in Congress and the Connecticut massacre having enormous effect on public opinion in favor of stricter gun control laws, 2013 could see a real power shift for each group. In fact, if women’s groups can capitalize on their 2012 success and follow some of the factors that have made the NRA so successful (like creating their own myth), they could quickly become the next big force not to be reckoned with.