Friday, March 15, 2013

It is good that the NRA sets the tone the gun makers follow

On today's NPR Morning Edition Bloomberg Businessweek assistant managing Editor Paul Barrett was trying to express concern but instead expressing confusion about the role the NRA plays in the debate over gun rights. Here he is again on Bloomberg TV.

He demonizes NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre as conspiratorial without any evidence offered, but that is not the major confusion he expresses. What he doesn't seem to understand is that the NRA is an organization lobbying for gun rights, not gun makers. He wants to fit it into a simple box like tobacco lobbyist towing the line for cigarette makers. But that isn't the correct model. What's more, we don't want it to be. And that is true of both ideological sides of the gun debate.

If the NRA were simply the gun manufacturers' political arm, we would expect to see lots more compromise on the issue of gun rights. Sounds good, right? It is not. When a corporation compromises with the government, it is a tit for tat arrangement. Hence, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of 1998 was very, very favorable to incumbent tobacco firms. Assuming one's goal was either tobacco freedom or tobacco prohibition, this agreement did not work very strongly in principle or practice to achieve either goal.

From gun rights supporters' perspective, they want an NRA beholden to their principals not the profitability of current gun makers. An NRA working for the gun makers would probably seek to prevent new entrants in the market a la the MSA as well as limit competition among existing firms--government-sponsored oligopoly. These compromises would be indifferent if not contrary to gun rights, but positive to gun makers.

While the limits on competition would be the compromise that somewhat satiates gun prohibitionist by limiting guns in some capacities, it would not be the ideal arrangement for that group either. 200-300 million guns exist in America today. These are highly durable machines. Limiting future production does little to correct what this group sees as a major problem in America (hear Steve Levitt's thoughts here.) An NRA fighting for a chance to capture public officials to the benefit of gun makers is a more dangerous foe than one staking out a principled stance. The latter will fight to the death, and you just might kill him. The former will fight to lose just enough that you won't win but will lose your own will and momentum to fight any longer.

Be able for thine enemy rather in power than use...