Reinventing institutions: The case of gun control

I’ve always been fascinated by the scale and complexity of institutions and bewildered by their inefficiency. Below is a short essay I wrote two years ago, comparing gun control reform in Australia to that in the United States, while completing a master’s degree in public policy. My thinking has evolved quite a bit since then, but my strong belief in the importance of getting institutions right remains.

When institutions manifestly fail to meet our human needs they must be reinvented. As our needs are evolving in line with our challenges in the 21st century, our purpose, and definition of success, has re-orientated towards human flourishing and wellbeing. Successful communities in business and government broadly acknowledge that humans can’t thrive in isolation, but rather, thriving is the result of high quality, mutually beneficial relationships with each other and the environment.

In the case of gun control, the old ‘us vs them’ paradigm of ‘protection through force’ defies any sense of rationality or compassion. Our governing institutions must transform to reflect our evolving needs and mindsets or they will continue to set binding constraints that hold us back from our potential as a society, with sometimes devastating consequences.

A Comparative Analysis of Gun Control: When Institutions Matter

In the past year, a number of high-profile shooting massacres have reignited the gun control debate in the United States. It was in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, that the President of the United States publicly endorsed new gun control legislation that ultimately failed to pass Congress in April 2013. In stark contrast, Australia was able to implement sweeping gun control reforms in every state and territory only months after the country’s most devastating massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The disparity begs the question; why have two similar societies faced with comparable challenges produced such vastly different policy outcomes?

I argue that this question can be answered through a comparative analysis of the development of contrasting political systems through the lens of historical institutionalism. I will begin this paper by focusing on the characteristics of historical institutionalism to argue that institutional development is paramount in explaining why. Secondly, I will exhibit the constant factors that existed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook and Port Arthur massacres to discredit the validity of alternate explanations. Finally, I will compare the veto points, reform capabilities and the contrasting influence of interest groups in Australia and the United States to demonstrate that institutional variances should take the blame for divergent policy decisions on gun control.

The historical structure of political systems, and their associated rules and procedures, can ultimately determine why some actors are privileged over others, and consequently, how certain ideas are elevated over others in the policy making process. Historical institutionalists generally define institutions as the manifestation of public conventions promulgated by formal organisation, possessing the ability to “affect the very identities, self-images and preferences of actors” (Hall & Taylor 1996, p. 939). Immergut (1996) observes that similar proposals on national health insurance programs in Western Europe resulted in divergent outcomes because institutions established different rules of the game for politicians and interest groups seeking to enact or block policies (p. 54). Collier (1991) suggests that institutions legitimate unequal distributions of power in the policy decision-making process by pushing institutional development along a set of socially constructed paths; effectively structuring the choices of reform on offer (pg. 38). In the United States, interest groups that seek to uphold the primacy of the second amendment (‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’) are privileged over gun control advocates because of the unique role of the US Constitution in the institutional development of the United States. In this context, March and Olsen (1990) stress that institutions can “produce unintended consequences and inefficiencies” (pg. 741) reinforced by national narratives that are difficult to reverse once set in motion.

To prove that the contrasting development of political systems is the major influencing factor in the evolution of divergent policy outcomes on gun control, it is important to recognise the factors that were constant in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook and Port Arthur massacres. While the massacres did take place 16 years apart, both were universally viewed as socially intolerable events that demanded a political response. In fact, in both instances, national leaders rallied to publicly condemn the events as legislative reform recorded 80% public support in national polls (Bloomberg 2013). In both countries, conservative parties controlled the House of Representatives, and in both cases, the same class of semi-automatic assault rifle was the focal target of regulation (New York Times 2013). Finally, both Australia and the United States are liberal-democratic sovereign states. The lack of validity evident in alternate explanations supports the conclusion that it is the institutional variance of political systems that permits gun control reform in Australia and inhibits it in the United States.

The Presidential political system in the United States typically possesses low reform capabilities due to the decentralised nature of law making. The separation of powers between the executive, vested in the office of the President of the United States and cabinet, and the legislative, situated in the tiers of United States Congress, commonly leads to policy gridlock. The many veto points in the Presidential Systems’ policy making process allows for the intervention of interest groups that seek to institutionalise policy communities at different levels of the political hierarchy. Such policy communities seek to influence compromise and concession on policy decisions in return for political support and campaign resources (Weaver & Rockman 1993, pg. 27). In the case of gun control legislation, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which enjoys a privileged position on the basis of its support for the second amendment, possesses a strong membership base that it cashes in for political concessions on Capitol Hill, obstructing implementation of gun control reform.

In contrast, the Westminster Parliamentary political system in Australia retains high reform capabilities due the proximity of the legislative and executive bodies in Parliament. The Cabinet executive in Australia is drawn from senior legislators in both Houses of Parliament that are responsible for formulating legislation for vote in both Houses. This system of concentrated executive power in close proximity to the legislative base ensures quick and effective implementation of policies that enjoy majority support, without many veto points to be taken advantage of by interest groups (Weaver & Rockman 1993, pg. 28). Policy networks operating against the implementation of gun control legislation in Australia in 1996 were essentially sidelined as both houses of Parliament swiftly passed legislation to alter the Medicare levy that would pay for the Government’s national ‘gun buy-back scheme’.

In the wake of a series of shooting massacres across the United States in 2013, the prospect of implementing gun control legislation in the United States is of high importance. Through a comparative analysis of the influence of contrasting political systems and their development through the lens of historical institutionalism, I have proven that institutional variance stands in the way of effective legislative reform on gun control in the United States. While Australia was able to quickly implement gun control legislation that has since been very successful in its aims, the prospect of the United States to do similarly is grim. Pierson and Skocpol suggest that as institutional conventions become further entrenched, the ‘path not taken’, or the political alternatives that were once quite plausible may become irretrievably lost (p. 695). If serious thought is not paid to institutional reform, then this may be the fate of gun control in the United States.

References

Bloomberg, ‘Shameful Day’ as US Gun Control Bill Fails’ in Sydney Morning Herald Online, accessed at < http://www.smh.com.au/world/shameful-day-as-us-gun-control-bill-fails-20130418-2i1an.html> 08 September 2013.

Collier, D 1991, Shaping the Political Arena, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hall, P.A and R. C. R. Taylor 1996, ‘Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms’, Political Studies, vol. 44, no. 5, pp. 936 – 957.

Howard, J 2013, ‘I Went After Guns, Obama Can Too’ in New York Times opinion online, accessed at < http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/opinion/australia-banned-assault-weapons-america-can-too.html?_r=0> 19 September 2013.

Immergut, E 1992, Health Politics: Interests and Institutions in Western Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press.

March, J and J Ohlsen 1984, ‘The new institionalism: organizational factors in political life’, American Political Science Review 78, pp. 734 – 49.

Pierson, P and T. Skocpol, ‘Historical Institutionalism in Contemporary Political Science’, in Political Science: State of the Discipline eds H.V Milner, New York: W.W Norton, pp. 693 – 721.

Weaver, R.K and B.A Rockman 1993, ‘Assessing the Effects of Institutions’, in Do Institutions Matter? Government Capabilities in the United States and Abroad eds R.K Weaver, and B.A Rockman, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, pp. 1-41.

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