The NRA is a fringe interest group – only the US's dysfunctional electoral system allows it to leverage so much power.
For all the national outrage over the Tucson massacre, and renewed appeals by well-meaning politicians like Michael Bloomberg, everyone knows that sentiment will not translate into commonsense gun control laws.
As after the Columbine massacre in 1999, national polls show a majority of Americans favouring stricter gun control laws, yet as with so many other issues, majority support does not necessarily lead to congressional action. How can there be such an ongoing disconnect between popular opinion and public policy?
As Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist has said, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favour of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their 'control' position?"
Though most voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn't move them to the polls. "But for that 4-5% who care about guns, they will vote on this." And in the battleground states and swing congressional districts, a change in 5% of the vote can make all the difference. So the NRA's influence has come from its capacity to move its supporters in these key swing districts and states – with its message, more than its money.
The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents – just like anti-Castro diehards in Florida – to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status. American pundits and analysts often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as Israel and Italy, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold hostage their coalition governments. Yet, they fail to recognise how the dynamics of our own electoral politics allow well-organised political minorities like the NRA to leverage disproportionately significant "swing voter" constituencies to push their radical agendas on the mainstream.
If we don't understand how our system works, we will miss the mark when we try to improve it.