Obama’s gun-control defeat

A failed “outside” negotiation

By — on / Negotiation Briefings Articles

In the aftermath of the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama decided to move gun control to the top of his legislative agenda. By April 2013, the Senate was considering a bill that would implement universal criminal background checks for all gun purchases. Despite having the support of 90% of Americans, the bill failed. There are several explanations for the defeat.

1. A polarizing tug-of-war.
Powerful factions on both sides of the gun-control issue lobbied hard for and against the bill. The National Rifle Association (NRA) pressured Republicans as well as Democrats from conservative states to vote against any new restrictions on guns. Meanwhile, Obama flanked himself with victims of gun violence, including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in public appearances and sent them to lobby members of the Senate.

In their negotiations, Democratic senator Charles E. Schumer and Republican senator Tom Coburn, the original cosponsors of the bill, clashed on the issue of whether the government would create records of gun sales that did not involve gun stores. Schumer and other gun-control advocates argued that the records were needed for effective background checks, but Coburn, facing pressure from gun-rights groups, balked, saying he feared the creation of a national gun registry, according to the New York Times.

Schumer and the White House considered dropping the record-keeping component of the bill but backed down in the face of opposition from gun-control groups. Ultimately, many senators who voted against the bill cited the record-keeping measure as their primary objection.

In negotiation, discussions among parties on the same side can exert at least as much influence as the talks that happen across the table. That’s why it’s often important to engage in internal discussions both before and during formal negotiations to ensure that your constituents will support you.

2. No consequences for noncooperation.
In March, Alaska Democratic senator Mark Begich asked Obama for a favor: Send the new interior secretary, Sally Jewell, to discuss a dispute over the construction of a road in a wildlife refuge, the Times reports. Begich wanted to show his constituents that he was pressuring the government to approve the road. Obama agreed. Four weeks later, despite Obama’s pleas, Begich, who is running for reelection this year, voted against the gun bill. Yet Jewell’s trip to Alaska was still on.

Unlike some past presidents, Obama “has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers,” write Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker in the Times. To get his way, Obama appears to rely primarily on reasoned discussions.

This strategy worked during his early years in office, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. But after Republicans took control of the House, Obama’s approach became less effective. He switched from an “inside” approach—centered on backroom policy discussions with lawmakers—to an “outside” approach aimed at putting pressure on Congress through campaign-style rallies, say his aides.

To pass significant initiatives before leaving office, Obama may need to impose consequences on those who cross him, some advise—in Begich’s case, for example, by canceling Jewell’s Alaska trip.

Obama’s gun-bill failure serves as a reminder that negotiators have many tools at their disposal. Threats, coercion, punishment, and rewards can all have their time and place.

3. Competition with other agendas.
According to Vice President Joe Biden, several senators from conservative states told him that they felt they had to choose between supporting the gun-control bill or the pending bill on immigration reform. Their constituents, they claimed, would turn on them if they reversed their previous course on both issues. That may explain why some senators waffled until the final days before the vote: They wanted to support it but backed down for fear of the reaction at home.

Once again, the story suggests that negotiators may have difficulty making headway with counterparts who have failed to win the support of their constituents behind the table. It also serves as a reminder of the importance of carefully juggling negotiation initiatives. Following the Newtown tragedy, Obama took the risk of bumping gun control ahead of immigration as the political cause of the moment. In doing so, he put conservative senators who wanted to support both bills in a difficult political situation.

In your own negotiations, factor in the possibility that your counterparts’ attention and allegiance may be divided when they are facing more than one deal at a time.