April 17th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
2 years ago

Public opinion gets trumped in gun control defeat

Washington (CNN) – Four months after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, the gun-control proposal with arguably the best chance of passing through Congress went down to defeat. And in this case, a powerful gun lobby, coupled with 2014 campaign politics, trumped public opinion.

A bipartisan yet controversial proposal that would have extended current background checks for gun buyers to include gun shows and internet sales Wednesday fell six votes shy of the 60 needed in the Senate to advance through the chamber. The amendment by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania went down in defeat even though just about every national poll conducted the past couple of months indicated that the vast majority of Americans supported tougher background checks.

The most recent surveys included a CNN/ORC International poll released last week that indicated 86% of the public supported some form of background checks that are not currently required by law for gun sales, and an ABC News/Washington Post survey released Tuesday which indicated that 86% of Americans said they favored background checks for gun sales on the internet and at gun shows.

The two new polls were also in-line with past surveys by indicating no partisan divide on the question, with the vast majority of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans supporting increased background checks. The ABC/Washington Post survey also indicated that 86% of gun owning households supported the proposal.

The bill was backed by President Barack Obama, who's made gun control a signature issue since December's horrific shootings by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 20 young students and 6 adults dead. The president's been a vocal advocate for passing gun control legislation, and he's touted public opinion as he pushed Congress to act.

"The American people are trying to figure out: How can something have 90% support and yet not happen?" said the president in comments made at the Rose Garden in the White House, an hour after the vote in the Senate.

"All in all this was a pretty shameful day in Washington," added Obama, who was flanked by victims of gun violence.

"This is clearly a disappointed, frustrated president who's asking a question about how Washington can ever get anything done if they can't do something that nine of out of ten Americans want," said CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

But while the shocking events in Newtown influenced public opinion, in the end that wasn't enough. The White House originally pushed for passage of a new assault weapons ban as well as the limiting of high capacity ammunition magazines. But hopes of passing those proposals soon faded and they were stripped from the main Democratic bill introduced into the Senate, leaving tougher background checks as the last major component of gun legislation.

In the end, it wasn't just Republicans but also some Democrats from conservative states where gun rights are sacred, that sank the background checks compromise. Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who all face re-election next year in red states, voted against the Manchin-Toomey proposal. So did Heidi Heitkamp. The freshman senator's not up for re-election for five and a half years but she's from North Dakota, another state with strong sentiment for gun owners rights.

The senators may have feared that voting in favor of increased background checks would hurt their re-election chances, especially with the extremely influential National Rifle Association, the leading advocate on gun rights, fiercely opposed to the Manchin-Toomey amendment. And the NRA's opposition seemed to serve as a counterweight to public opinion.

(Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted no at the last minute for procedural reasons, allowing him to bring the amendment back up at a later date.)

Besides Toomey, John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois were the only GOP senators to support the measure. For other Republican senators who considered supporting the proposal but ultimately voted no, re-election politics and the realization that even if the amendment had passed the Senate, it was likely to die in the GOP dominated House of Representatives, may have been factors in their decision making process.

"It came down to politics, the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections," said the president. "They worried that the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-second amendment. And obviously a lot of Republicans had that fear but Democrats had that fear too. And they caved to that pressure."

CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash analyzed the vote this way: "There is a feeling that some of these middle of the roaders on the Republican and Democratic side decided that on this gun issue there was too much risk and not enough reward to defy the NRA lobby and many of the constituents in their states."

But the NRA, in a statement, called the Manchin-Toomeny amendment "misguided" and added that "as we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools."

While polling indicated widespread support for increased background checks, recent surveys also pointed to two other factors that explain why the proposal failed to survive.

The ABC/Washington Post poll highlighted an engagement gap between those who own and those who don't own guns. About one in five gun owners questioned in the survey said they have at some point contacted a public official to express their views on gun control. That number dropped by half for those in non-gun households. Nineteen percent of gun owners say they've contributed to an organization engaged in the gun control issue, with just 4% of non-gun owners saying the same thing.

The CNN/ORC poll pointed to public concerns that increased background checks would lead to a federal registry of gun owners and their firearms, which according to the survey is opposed by 55% of Americans. And two-thirds of those questioned said that if the government did keep a list of gun owners, it would eventually use that list to take guns away from people who own them.

To allay such concerns, the Manchin-Toomey proposal included language to bar the creation of such a federal registry. But it appears that wasn't enough to save the measure.


Filed under: CNN/ORC International poll • Gun control • Gun rights • Polls • Senate
soundoff (1,553 Responses)
  1. julie

    WOW JUST WOW I truly thought the Senators would vote yea..shocked...guess NRA is much bigger and more powerful then the government........I sure hope folks remember this come NOV 2014 my state MD voted YEA they know better!!

    April 18, 2013 07:57 am at 7:57 am |
  2. Nick

    How can the Senate stay relevant with the current procedure rules when there is the tyranny of the minority.

    April 18, 2013 08:07 am at 8:07 am |
  3. Jules

    Note to the Senate Reelection Committee: Unless you can assure me that the 4 Democratic no votes on background checks will not receive any reelection money from your fund, count me out for the next couple of elections. I will make my donations to individual candidates. What a bunch of gutless wonders those who voted no are – they put their relection above country. You hand on a Bible for gosh sakes when you took the oath of office. What would Jesus do?

    April 18, 2013 08:08 am at 8:08 am |
  4. JAMES LEE

    This is a shameful day for our democracy. That blackmail and bribery are more important to our congress than the people who pay them is a disgrace

    April 18, 2013 08:13 am at 8:13 am |
  5. tbone

    Public Opinion DID NOT get trumped!
    You cant use polls from some liberal Obama loving site to decide what the American people believe in and want.
    I guarantee you that a bill with expanded background checks would have passed without frail.
    HOWEVER, Obama knows whats best for us so he snuck bans in the bill for certain weapons and restrictions on magazine sizes among other things.
    Thats why it failed.
    It failed because America is tired of a President telling us he knows whats best for us.
    His reaction and Bidens reaction to the vote says it all, a couple of crybabies who didnt get their way.

    April 18, 2013 08:14 am at 8:14 am |
  6. CW

    I have a few comments on this. First, votes in the House and Senate OFTEN trump public opinion, on a variety of topics. How many people want pork projects in the some remote part of Nebraska? How many wanted sequestration? How many people want to balance the budget and get rid of the debt? What "we the people" want is not what gets voted on – it's the nature of a Democratic Republic.

    Second – the fact that 86% of people surveyed wanted some form of background check does not mean that the law, as written, is what they want? A survey is a general question, while laws are very specific. Example – (Survey) Do you support the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms? Yes. (Law) – the Right to Bear arms will allow any person, regardless of prior crimes, mental health, etc..., to own any and all weapons, including weapons of war. So we see (in the gross exageration, lest I be flamed for it) that a law can be more specific than a survey, and move further from the general intent questioned in a survey.

    For the 86% who supported the proposal/law (also in a survey), I would be hard pressed to believe that most had actually read the bill in question, but were simply answering that they supported. It behooves the lawmakers (voting members of Congress) to understand the law, and the implications that go beyond what a survey says.

    Whether it was right or wrong in this case I won't debate here. Just understand that Public Opinion was not necessarily trumped in this case. The variables are too many to accurately conclude that.

    April 18, 2013 08:14 am at 8:14 am |
  7. Ryan

    I doubt 86% favor tougher gun control. President Obama's anger quite frankly is amusing and hypocritical. I believe when health care was passed, the polls showed that a majority of Americas didn't want it. He didn't care that Congress did what Congress wanted then, why the fuss now?

    April 18, 2013 08:15 am at 8:15 am |
  8. Richard

    No, public opinion was actually heard today. The issue today was the Rights of all states to be equal regardless of the population counts. Utah had as many votes as New York and etc. While gun control is a big political deal in huge northeast cities fighting crime and gang murders in the street, that is not the norm for the rest of America. Five gun control states Cal., N.Y., Ill., Mass., and Maryland make up about 25% of the pop. Yet those same states have most of the crime. Those 5 states also only represent 5% of the 50 states. Today all the states voted as their citizens wanted

    April 18, 2013 08:15 am at 8:15 am |
  9. Links2

    Only in America! How shameful that the majority of the people are denied by cowardice leaders. Fence sitters are running and ruining your country. How can you possibly think you will remain the power in the world? Such a divided nation that you are.

    April 18, 2013 08:17 am at 8:17 am |
  10. bewildered

    Public opinion won!

    April 18, 2013 08:19 am at 8:19 am |
  11. NC_Right

    I will now rejoin the NRA. They are finally doing their jobs.

    April 18, 2013 08:21 am at 8:21 am |
  12. TamarS

    once again the crippled,corrupt senate fails us in favor of their political deals and dollars with the massive gun industry. shame on them. we need to get our government back in balance in favor of the people, not the politicians.

    April 18, 2013 08:21 am at 8:21 am |
  13. Brent

    Its a great day today! ! People= win Obama= loss

    April 18, 2013 08:23 am at 8:23 am |
  14. jkane sfl the gop national disgrace party will be swept out like the trash they are in2014 ?

    They will pay in 2014 midterms ,gop out !!!!

    April 18, 2013 08:23 am at 8:23 am |
  15. G

    How long is the public going to continue to put up with Congress not representing the people? This is the second well publicized, major piece of legislation in recent memory where this Congress has knowingly gone against public opinion. Conservatives and the public did not get what they wanted with Obamacare. Liberals and the public do not get what they want with Background Check Expansion for gun purchases... What happened to representing the people? Why are we so uneducated that we keep these incumbent morons in office?

    I understand Edmund Burke when he said "that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion."

    –But at the same time these two situations defy that logic. There is no judgement by these Congressmen that makes logical sense. Sometimes the public is too quick to judge or too ignorant to comprehend complexities; I get that. Seems to me though that this clouded group of lawmakers cares nothing about their constituents and only about their lobbyist filled wallets and pressures from their Chief Executive. How can they "grow a pair" when dealing with the people that put them in power yet cower in front of the very entity they are hired to keep in check?

    April 18, 2013 08:33 am at 8:33 am |
  16. Dallas

    Disgraceful. 46 cowards in the US Senate so afraid to buck the lying NRA. How can you ignore the will of the American people? This bill was a no-brainer. All of you know that the NRA has lied about what the bill contained and yet you are all so afraid of losing your seat, being challenged in a primary that you are unwilling to do the right thing. Shame on all of you. The Republican party is well on its way to extinction and you all will pay the price with our votes.

    April 18, 2013 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  17. Voter

    The public opinion I hear is "protect the Second Amendment" The questions the media polls on are misleading and incomplete.

    April 18, 2013 08:38 am at 8:38 am |
  18. Derek

    I dont know who they're polling to get that "90%" figure but its bogus. Maybe they're asking only registered democrats. Here in SC its probably like 25%. The other night, just as an experiment, we polled everybody in the bar & grill we were having dinner at and it was 12 out of 50 were in favor of it. So, I guess if you carefully select your polling group you can get whatever response you want. Go out and ask 1,000 people at random all across the country; south, east, west, and central America and you will get no where near 90%.

    April 18, 2013 08:40 am at 8:40 am |
  19. Al

    My opinion was never to make it harder for the good citizen to get a gun, I've always voiced my dislike of how criminals are rewarded when they commit crimes with a weapon that they didn't file ANY paperwork for is afforded so much protection and put back on the streets to allow them to repeat the original crime they committed.

    April 18, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  20. Dean

    Please show me the numbers that Obama and the Dems keep shouting that 90% of Americans wanted this. That is such a lie. I remember in the debate with Romney, Obama kept misquoting him and he kept saying I didn't say that to Obama and Obama kept repeating the same thing. Finally Romney threw his arms up and said ok liar keep lying the media will do nothing about it so you will keep doing it. The majority of American don't want this those are the numbers. Obama needs this to disarm Americans so he can socialize America.

    April 18, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  21. Tim Meakin

    What turned me against deeper background checks were these statements. "This Bill is only the beginning" -J.Biden; and "Mr and Mrs America, Turn 'em ALL in". Statements like these lead voters to believe that "common sense gun laws" were not the true agenda.

    April 18, 2013 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  22. Scot B

    Public opinion got trumped? Hardly–The public caught on that the whole Manchin-Toomey-Schumer thing is a liberal scam that won't make a difference. Don't call it "bipartisan" because Democrats were able to lure a single blue-state Republican to work on a "compromise" with the Liberals–It's a bipartisan compromise when you get a healthy portion of both parties to sign on, which this did not.

    Obama says that the Republicans and NRA outright lied? Hardly–this bill only exempted certain family members and still set the stage for the next legislative showdown to be over "universal registration".

    Reid is calling the Republicans "even more extremist now"? The Democrats are the real extremists, trying to cram down legislation that shreds individual Rights and liberties guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights! The Dems have been unwilling to pass a budget for the last 5 years as Constitutionally mandated, yet they push through non-commerce as commerce that they can regulate at the Federal level, try to push the DISCLOSE Act to kill political free speech, Dept of Homeland Security now considers military veterans to be likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism, and the Dems are now trying to cut the 2nd Amendment in half. The Democrats are the extremists! At what point will the courts and oath-takers that swear to uphold and protect the Constitution from "all enemies, foreign & domestic" start protecting the Constitution from those domestic enemies in the Capital building? The legislators took an oath to the Constitution, not to public opinion.

    April 18, 2013 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  23. Dumber Dumb

    If only gun nutters, that is, the so called responsible gun owners, were able to get their hands on bombs. Just imagine how safer we would all be! The right to bear arms is not just confined to guns.

    April 18, 2013 08:48 am at 8:48 am |
  24. wild man

    Who did they question in these polls it wasn't me or any one i know, in fact i conducted my own poll and found that not only did no one i questioned participate in one of these national polls but almost 75 % were against the federal government expanding gun laws.

    April 18, 2013 08:50 am at 8:50 am |
  25. Derek

    Stop it already CNN we know your not a neutral party in this. So stop with the propaganda.

    April 18, 2013 08:52 am at 8:52 am |
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