On a day in February in 2018 a boy with a gun kills seventeen boys and girls in a school in America.
Is this a different mass murder to other mass murders? Past mass murders have seen a broadly liberal press (and their readerships) call for change, but an NRA funded political establishment has resisted change and politicians have preferred to offer prayers for victims instead. If the past is our guide therefore we can be sure that the behavioural shift needed from politicians will not be brought about by the power of their prayers or journalistic commentary.
Behavioural change requires an incentive in the form of a reward or a punishment. Incentives can be immediate or future, certain or uncertain. An incentive that is immediate and certain will nearly always be more powerful than an incentive that is future and uncertain. We know that the people who must change are the politicians, what therefore have been the incentives they have considered so far?
On the one hand “Change the guns laws and one day these murderous incidents may be less likely to occur”. This is an incentive which has a future and uncertain outcome.
On the other hand “Change the gun laws and the NRA will withdraw support and funding for your career as a politician today”. This is an incentive which has an immediate and certain outcome.
When it comes to incentives immediate and certain trumps future and uncertain. The NRA doesn’t have to win the intellectual or the emotional argument because it has an immediate and certain incentive to deploy.
Those of us who want to see gun laws change will always win the intellectual and emotional argument, but we will not beat the NRA until we have a powerful immediate and certain incentive to deploy. In this regard there are only two options – either commit to funding politicians at levels that exceed NRA funding, or only support and campaign for candidates who refuse to take NRA funding.
If the past is our guide to what happens next, the press will move away from the latest shooting in a few days’ time. Politicians know their personal discomfort will end when the press stop asking questions. The NRA will do nothing, its silence quietly assures politicians that this too will pass and that their funding is secure if they hold the line of sending prayers and condolences.
Every campaigner, every journalist, every grieving friend and relative must come to terms with the fact that being impassioned and right is not enough. Change will only happen when there is an immediate and certain incentive to persuade the politicians to break their dependency on NRA money.
My fervent hope is that they will find a campaign figurehead who authentically speaks for those who want change and that they will find a simple message of hope to transcend NRA funded prayers. Above all however they must crowd-fund like fury to outbid the NRA and secure the support of politicians for change. I think it is the only way.
Take care. Paul
(With grateful thanks to Aubrey Daniels for his insights into behavioural change)