Why are single-issue voters so effective?

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Understanding single-Issue pro-gun voters

The NRA knows the power of the single-issue voter to fight against gun control. I’ve learned recently, some of how they motivate and mobilize their members to pester their legislative representatives. This combined with the NRA’s directed financial support and negative ads, enables them to stop gun reform and get Republicans elected.

I always thought that the strength of the NRA came from their influence on politicians through money. Now, after research, I still believe money plays a big part in how they stop progress on preventing gun violence – but this is only part of the story.

It turns out, single-issue voters are more effective than having the vast majority of voters

It is puzzling that 60% of Americans favor stricter gun laws, yet it is always a heavy lift to pass any gun violence prevention measures. Are not we a Democracy? Shouldn’t it be that legislators who ignore public opinions lose elections? This is what I’ve been trying to understand.

When polled, most Americans support universal background checks. But these polls don’t tell us how deeply held the opinion is held. It turns out that passionate voters, particularly those who advocate for issues, are much more effective than those who simply believing in an issue.

It is commonly known among Democrats and Republicans that these days, money helps win elections and influence policy. But something more is going on that prevents passage of new gun control laws. What is it that we Democrats don’t see? We are less aware than Republicans of the power of the single-issue voter.

Why are single-issue voters so effective?

An NPR poll found three quarters of both Democrats and Republicans want better gun control. The problem is, they don’t want it bad enough. Pro-gun people want to protect their gun rights more than gun control people want to fight for gun safety.

We progressive get frustrated with the lack of progress on meaningful gun violence prevention measures. This is especially true after each new mass shooting – at least for a while. We complain to our friends about how terrible gun violence is. We may even research what legislators are blocking gun reform. Briefly, we think about calling our Senator and Representative. But then we rationalize not calling or emailing because either the legislator is firmly for gun control or against it. The thinking is that solid pro-gun legislators cannot be influenced to change.

The NRA knows better. When any gun related bill comes up for a vote, the NRA is right on top of the bill’s progress. At each step of the way, they notify their members to send emails and make the calls to their legislators, no matter whether they are pro-gun or pro-gun control. This constant pressure is effective.

It is shameful that NRA members are more likely to contact public officials to express their opinion on gun issues than the general public. The Pew Research Foundation surveyed and found 21% of gun owners say they’ve contacted a legislator. Only 12% of non-gun owners have done the same thing.

A New Hampshire candidate for State Representative told me of her campaign experiences at events in a rural area of the state. She campaigned as a Democrat, not that it really matters in this example, for the tactic of intimidating candidates is similar against Democrats and Republicans.

After finishing her campaign speech, she took questions. Invariably, the first question would come from someone near the front of the audience. What is your position on the Second Amendment? This seemingly simple question is anything but. It is complex, requires historical background knowledge of Supreme Court rulings and is emotionally charged. I don’t know how she answered the question, but I’m sure Republicans in the audience didn’t like it.

The strategy is to show a presence and a force represented by many other gun owners. They are polite but visible. Many candidates for office remember this force and become reluctant to poke the bear.

Fear of being labeled is on the candidate’s mind. If they should back any sort of gun violence prevention measure, they risk being labeled as weak and anti-gun. Such a label from then on would require defending against vocal pro-gun advocates. In addition, they risk that their NRA rating would be lowered; a simplistic guide used by many single-issue pro-gun voters.

Why do conservative groups exploit single-issue voters?

The Republican party latched onto single-issue voters when they realized the passion their advocacy can bring to the political process. A Republican legislator often doesn’t care about the particular issue, other than they know it guarantees a block of voters who will always vote for them. President Trump never cared about abortion or guns until he decided to run for election. Then he learned the words to say to win him this block of voters.

Super-PACs target single-issuer voters because they need a target audience to influence. Single-issue pro-gun voters become easy targets to sway with the typical alarming that the other side is out to take away their guns, freedom, and identity. In ads, the supported candidate is purported to understand and protect what Democrats want to take away.

The NRA wants to sell more guns. Supposedly the NRA is a non-profit; but for them, it is all about bringing in more money to help their gun manufacturers and dealers. Knowing their actual objective, it is clear to me why they want to build their membership and political power by encouraging identity politics among gun owners.

How are single-issue voters created?

This is my understanding of how gun owners are indoctrinated into the NRA fold. After a new gun owner buys a gun, usually they go to the local gun range to try it out. After they’ve experienced firing their gun and are learning to enjoy the experience, the sell to join the NRA begins. Usually it starts with building awareness that some people want to take your gun away from you. The claim is that those people want to take away your freedom to have a gun, which is defined in the constitution.

Once this message is clear, the next step into a pro-gun indoctrination is to encourage joining the NRA. They are told that this group works to protect their freedom and their right to own guns. Most join, then continually receive literature pushing the NRA message and urging advocacy to fight gun control legislation.

A big part of the indoctrination into the NRA is to build up a gun owner’s self-image and identity. Anyone who feels lost for an identity is vulnerable to this. Here is a group that welcomes them and boasts their self-confidence in their identity as a defender against bad guys. The American cowboy type image of themselves is one identity they may choose. Now they are hocked into being a single-issue voter. The loss of a personal identity is frightening to these previously possibly lonely people.

Logic and common sense don’t work too well

I thought about the self-image of us gun violence prevention people. For us, logic and common sense are more important. Our emotional response occurs after every mass shooting. But, as the shock wears off within a week or so, our logic is still there, but not the emotional shock. Our motivation for advocacy wains. Identity dependence seems to be a longer lasting emotion, well understood by Republicans and the NRA.

We care about protecting ourselves from being shot, but as the days go on after a shooting, threats of self-protection fade away as other concerns take over our lives.

How can we fight single-issue voters

How can we fight the power of the single-issue voter? We must progress to a genuine passion for gun control from just a passive belief in making a change. We can start by learning from the experience of the NRA.

I woke up to the power of confronting legislators last year after the Parkland High School shooting. A group of fifteen of us in town, gathered to confront our State Representative about his positions on gun bills. He, a Republican, a gun owner, and a pro-gun supporter, was clearly intimidated by our passionate crowd of angry citizens. He couldn’t control the discussion to the point where he kicked us out of his office.

Since that time, his position on gun control seems to have turned around. I was certainly surprised to find out that after that, he co-sponsored three gun control bills. His gun control record this year is the best of any Republican in the state. I’m sure he thought about it and decided he had better take a new look at the issue because if fifteen people felt this passionate, hundreds of others must feel the same way. He wants those votes in the next election.

The NRA carefully tracks current legislation that is in the pipeline at each State House and Congress. Then they alert their members urging them to advocate by calling and emailing their legislators. We don’t have that centralized capability. That is why it is important for us to sign up for gun control group email lists that alert of upcoming votes on gun bills. My email list is one of those.

We need to combine with others in our actions to amplify our voices. One of the effective ways of doing this is to join a lobby day at our State House. I participated in a lobby day recently and found it to be non-threatening and satisfying to have participated in in an event that furthered an important cause.

We also need to become aware of the votes of our legislators and the position of legislative candidates. The NRA assists their members with this by grading candidates for election. I can offer you a link where you can see the voting record of your legislator on gun bills.

One of the strategies of the NRA is to encourage the discussion of gun rights with friends and family. For some reason, I find we as gun control advocates, tend to avoid discussing this issue during casual conversations. Discussions and complaints about President Trump seem to occur constantly. I don’t understand this reluctance to discuss gun control, other than right after a mass shooting.


I learned that our reliance on rational thinking and sensible arguments isn’t enough to result in better gun violence prevention measures. Without our continued passion and our resulting advocacy, no substantial improvements will result. Our passion for gun control is wide but too shallow to be effective enough. We must dedicate ourselves to change even more than NRA pro-gun people passionately defend their gun rights. We must work harder because we don’t have the self-image needs or the vast resources of the NRA to support us.