Congress passed the first significant gun control legislation last week in nearly three decades, despite many previous efforts to get something done. What happened in the negotiations that led to this, and how can we apply these lessons to our own negotiations?
The New York Times did a deep dive into what happened. Based on its reporting, here are my four negotiation takeaways.
1. Ensure the right negotiators are in the room
This deal would never have happened had the negotiators been flame-throwing presidential aspirants looking to score political points with their base. Instead, four senators – Chris Murphy (D-DE), John Cornyn (R-TX), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) – privately met and engaged shortly after the horrific massacre in Uvalde.
They later expanded this group to 20 senators, which crucially included 10 Republicans – none of which were up for re-election this fall (some were retiring and others were up later). This recognition of the Republicans’ political self-interest was vital as it insulated them from the inevitable constituent backlash from their pro-gun rights tribe who viewed any compromise as a betrayal.
In fact, Sen. Cornyn still got hammered in the midst of these negotiations, facing boos when speaking to his Texas Republican convention. But he stuck it out. This would never have happened had he been on the fall ballot.
Two other parties were also critically involved in the negotiations and the bill drafting: the gun rights powerhouse National Rifle Association (NRA) and the leading gun safety group Everytown. Even though the NRA ultimately opposed the bill, it didn’t actively work to kill it. Having a seat at the table almost certainly contributed to this make-or-break decision.
2. Start with areas of agreement – even if small
The Senators started out by taking the politically toxic reforms off the table (including an assault weapons ban, raising the eligible age for rifles from 18 to 21, closing the gun show loophole, etc.). Practically-speaking, none of these could ever muster the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster. Even discussing them, according to the parties, would have poisoned the negotiation environment.
Instead, the Senators focused on the several incremental areas of possible agreement, trying to build momentum and exhibiting good faith engagement.
Initially building momentum on small areas of agreement was essential to getting a deal.
3. The parties found common interests and political cover leverage-wise
The parties shared the most crucial common interest: a commitment to improve the safety of all Americans. They also agreed that any agreement would be better for their political self-interest than no agreement (each party’s Plan B, or leverage). Part of a loaf is better than nothing, right?
We know this as Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Cornyn commissioned a poll of 1,000 gun-owning households across the country – in the midst of the negotiations – to assess their support of the issues on the table (McConnell was not “in the room” but was involved given his leadership position). They found significant support from gun owners, providing Republicans with, as McConnell noted, a clear political incentive to support the bill.
In other words, these Republicans and most Democrats evaluated their Plan Bs – no bill – as worse than a bill with these new gun control measures.
Mutual interests and leverage drove this deal, as often occurs in many negotiations.
4. Closing the deal required perseverance
I followed this negotiation in the press, and I thought it was over near the end when Sen. Cornyn, the key Republican negotiator, left the room and said “I’m done. Now they know where I stand, and so far there is no agreement.”
At that point, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), according to The Times, “gave his dejected colleague [Sen. Murphy] a pep talk. ‘I said, ‘I know things look bleak. You’ve just got to keep on trying.”
They did – and their collective perseverance led to a deal. President Biden signed it into law on Saturday.
Latz’s Lesson: To get any deal, including a political one, you often need the right parties at the table, momentum, common interests, a better Plan A for everyone than their Plan Bs (leverage), and perseverance.