Want Gun Control? Let’s Get Rid of Primary Elections

Erin Schaff for The New York Times

When something tragic like a mass shooting occurs, people love to start placing blame wherever they can. Sometimes it’s because they passionately believe that they know what the root of the problem is. For most people, though, it’s just a matter of winning cheap political points. The post-shooting political punching bags include a vast array of things like violent video games, social media, and online radicalization. However, the number one most common target is the National Rifle Association.  

The narrative is that the NRA uses the vast amount of funds they receive from membership dues to contribute large sums to the re-election campaigns of incumbent Republicans.  Ignore the narrative. The NRA was ranked just 543rd in total campaign contributions during the 2018 cycle. Their spending is minimal, especially compared to other controversial organizations like Planned Parenthood, who spent over $7 million in 2018 campaign contributions alone.

So, is the narrative completely false or simply misleading? The truth is that the NRA does hold leverage over politicians, but they didn’t necessarily create it themselves. In fact, it comes from a completely democratic process. What the NRA does is assign politicians a letter grade based on their support of gun rights. Voters pay attention to these grades. If you’re elected to Congress, and you vote on bills pertaining to Second Amendment Rights or take public positions on gun issues, the NRA will formulate a grade for you on an A to F scale. Generally speaking, Democrats don’t want anyone with a rating higher than a D, and Republicans don’t want anyone below A.

There are exceptions of course, depending on the area that the member represents. But not many. And the reality is that the sort of gun control legislation that the general public would support is not in the range of possibility for A rated or D rated politicians. Things like universal background checks or a ban on high capacity magazines would seem like they sit somewhere in the middle. But if a politician makes an attempt to reach for a compromise like that on guns, their rating gets unfavorably changed and they begin to fear a primary challenge. If you happen to notice a lawmaker making a serious attempt at a gun control compromise, they either have strong bipartisan support in their district/state, like Sen. Joe Manchin, or they likely don’t plan on running for re-election, like Sen. Pat Toomey.

It’s the very existence of primary elections that puts the country in this position. The problem isn’t so much open field primaries, as those tend to favor electability in candidates. The issue is when a sitting politician is primaried for not being sufficiently far right or far left. This primary mechanism then leaves America with legislatures full of people who either primaried an incumbent or who are politically zealous enough to never have to worry about a primary challenge. These people are then the least likely to work for compromises in legislating since they have very little to gain and everything to lose.

The solution might sound anti-democratic. We need to get rid of legislative primary elections and go back to the smoke filled rooms where candidates are chosen by committees, rather than the party bases.  It’s ironic that more political freedom has actually made our country a worse place, but it’s the reality we live in. As long as our representatives fear the fringe elements of their parties, they will never have the courage to reach the compromises necessary to move our country forward.

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