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Has the NRA bought off Congress?

On Monday, the Senate voted down gun control measures that were introduced in the wake of the massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub. The failure was not surprising, but still remarkable, since there is broad agreement in the country that those on the terrorist watchlists should not be allowed to purchase guns. What happened?

One explanation, popularly held among liberals, is that the NRA has essentially purchased lawmakers’ votes. This isn’t wrong—only one senator who voted against yesterday’s measures didn’t receive money from the NRA. The suggestion that a powerful special interest is blocking the will of the people to protect the bottom lines of corporations at the expense of individual safety is broadly true, but still somewhat misleading: It overstates the power of the NRA, while understating the power of voters.

As Katherine Miller pointed out on Twitter, “Voters, not money, are the reason the NRA has power.” There is a small but highly effective minority in the country whose single issue is the freedom to buy whatever firearm they want. The NRA can leverage these voters against Republican incumbents, threatening to turn a vote for gun control into a primary challenge. The fact that the NRA gives politicians money certainly plays a role, but it is not the primary reason why it’s so difficult to pass even modest gun control legislation.