Why the President Lost on Gun Control

He asked for too much, and got nothing.

Adam Winkler has a quietly devastating piece on the gun control process that places the blame squarely on the tactics of the gun controllers. They waited too long, squandering the political opening afforded by Newtown. They appointed a commission to make recommendations that they could have gotten from the Violence Policy Center the day after the Sandy Hook shootings. And they asked for too much, of the wrong things. Winkler notes:

Focusing on assault weapons played right into the hands of the NRA, which has for years been saying that Obama wanted to ban guns. Gun control advocates ridiculed that idea—then proposed to ban the most popular rifle in America.

Gun control advocates have told me the assault weapons ban was intended to be a bargaining chip. Ask for the moon, settle for less—in this case, universal background checks. If that was the strategy, it backfired. For most of February and March, gun advocates focused their criticisms on the assault weapons ban. They correctly observed that it outlawed guns but did nothing to keep outlaws from having guns. And they used the time to organize their base, comprised largely of gun owners who love the AR-15 and its variations. Many gun owners might have supported background checks had they not been distracted by the assault weapons issue, which caused them to distrust gun control proponents even more than before.

I never understood why so much time was spent pushing an assault weapons ban. It was bad politics--long before a bill was even proposed, it was clear to everyone that an assault weapons ban would never pass. Moreover, the government's own research showed that the previous assault weapons ban (upon which the new one was modeled) had had little impact on shooting crime. Connecticut's existing assault weapons ban (also modeled on the old federal ban) certainly had no impact on Adam Lanza.

So what was this doing on the agenda? Winkler's piece seems to indicate that gun control groups, and some Democratic legislators, fell prey to The Myth of the Bargaining Chip.

The Myth is popular with people who have taken a one-semester class on game theory, and/or watched a lot of movies. The movie version of negotation goes like this: I ask you for something huge. You offer something very small. Eventually, we split the difference. So the higher or lower your initial offer, the better you come out in the end.

It's easy to see why movies use this negotiation strategy a lot: it's simple, immediately understandable, and can thus be portrayed in under two minutes worth of film. But this is no more realistic than those legal dramas where one hour after you've filed a motion, you're standing in court and arguing it to the jury, or those medical dramas where people die of terminal diseases whose only apparent physical symptom is Extreme Paleness. The "Ask for the Moon, You'll Get the Stars" tactic is a dramatic convenience that too many people seem to have mistaken for an actual viable strategy--for example, the progressives who think that liberals should have asked for single payer in order to get to the public option.

This is dangerously naive. There's only so much that you can get out of a negotiation, and no matter where you start out, you aren't going to move beyond that. Academics who study this call it the Zone of Possible Agreement. In a traditional sales negotiation, it iis defined by the highest possible price that the buyer is willing to offer, and the lowest possible price that the seller is willing to accept.

Say we're haggling over a new car. The car cost the dealer $14,000, and the fixed costs of the lot and so forth mean that he needs to make another $1000 on the car to break even. His "reservation price" is $15,000. You are willing to pay as much as $18,000 but would of course prefer to get it for less. Which means that to make a deal, you are going to settle on a price somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000.

The dealer will probably price the car high--say, $20,000--in order to get more money out of you. You will probably give him a lowball offer in order to pay less. But no offer that you make is going to allow you to pay $13,000 for the car; no price he sets will yield him a final sales price of $19,000. Those prices are outside the ZOPA, which means that one party will walk away rather than make a deal.

Can you move the boundaries of the ZOPA? Yes. In fact, Newtown did just that for gun controllers. But what professional negotiators understand, and gun rights activists apparently don't, is that your starting position is not what changes the ZOPA. Oh, there are rare instances where you happily discover that the other side wants something very much that you don't care about at all. But the stuff that actually shifts the ZOPA usually happens outside the negotiation: shifts in the legal climate, or public opinion, or some other factor.

In fact, by demanding too much, you can often worsen the chances for a deal. That's why negotiators typically start off with a price that's outside the ZOPA, but not so far outside that you shut down negotiations.

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Imagine our car dealer posted a price of $40,000 on the car. Would that get him closer to the full $18,000 he'd ideally like to collect from you? Hardly. You'd take one look at that absurd pricetag, decide he was an idiot, and take your business elsewhere. Similarly, if you kept insisting that you only wanted to pay $2,000 for the car, the salesman would probably quickly decide that you weren't serious, so it wasn't worth wasting his time on a negotiation.

Arguably, that's what happened to gun control. By spending time on an assault weapons ban, gun controllers hurt themselves in multiple ways. They energized the NRA's base, who could probably have been persuaded to live with background checks. They wasted time, which had a huge cost: gun owners care about gun rights all the time, but the rest of the population mostly cares about gun control in the wake of a high-profile tragedy. And they made themselves look less like serious negotiators who were willing to come to a compromise that the other side could accept, and more like they were trying to reinstate the kind of gun laws that NRA members had spent two decades beating back.

In other words, by demanding more, they got less.

Asking for the moon in the hopes that you will get the stars is a good strategy only when you're actually okay with getting nothing at all. To throw in a bit more negotiating jargon, it matters a lot whether you think your BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) is better than whatever minimum concession the other side is demanding.

That's why Republicans got a pretty good deal out of the debt ceiling negotiations. And it's why they basically caved on the Bush tax cuts, ultimately agreeing to significant tax hikes on high-income Americans. In the first case they believed--however insanely--that crashing into the debt ceiling was better than allowing spending to continue unchecked. In the second case, their BATNA was an even larger tax hike than the one that Democrats were offering. So they extracted a small concession from Obama (the tax hikes started at $400,000 rather than $250,000) and then obediently agreed to violate their "no new taxes" pledge.

In the negotiation over gun control, the alternative to an agreement was something that gun rights activists liked--no new gun laws--and gun controllers didn't. That meant the administration started with a weak hand, and moreover, that everyone knew they were starting with a weak hand. They needed to be superbly tactical: move fast, propose a modest agreement that got the public on their side without fanning too much of a frenzy among the NRA's membership, and get it done. Instead they squandered their post-Newtown momentum on an unwinnable negotiating position, and lost everything.