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. wes iwanski

    Shame on the NRA. Shame on the cowards in congress. And shame on all of us for not voting them out.

    April 18, 2013 08:52 am at 8:52 am |
  2. Fourleaf Tayback

    Gallup: Only 4% of Americans Think Gun Control is an Important Problem. What public opinion are you talking about CNN...your coffee room chit chat?

    April 18, 2013 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  3. Surfer George

    They'll get LOTS of support from the Gun lobbyists. They'll get LOTS of support from the lunatic fringe of gun owners, but they WILL NOT get my money, my vote.

    April 18, 2013 08:57 am at 8:57 am |
  4. Al

    Let's tell the truth CNN....Your poll asked if Americans approve of background checks?....NOT do Americans approve of expanded background checks the way the bill was co-sponsored. You guys need a truth check. Liars will not go far with the American people. On top of that a bunch of democrats in the Senate including Harry turned coat on Obama.

    April 18, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  5. The Other Bob

    If anyone had an doubt that our government is broken, this debacle should remove any doubt. Even though the vast majority of citizens and a majority of the Senate were in favor, the bill was defeated ?!? The so-called "tyranny of the majority" has been replaced by "tyranny of the minority." This is democracy?

    April 18, 2013 08:58 am at 8:58 am |
  6. Moe

    Both houses are brothels for men and women of ill-repute who sell their services to the highest bidders. Our esteem representatives and Senators are nothing more than the lint in the deep pockets mongering corporate interest.

    April 18, 2013 08:59 am at 8:59 am |
  7. jaron kadek

    Big Media rollouts just ain't what they used to be. Many of us simply aren't buying anymore.

    April 18, 2013 09:02 am at 9:02 am |
  8. Richard Long

    Gallop Poll: Issues facing the nation
    Gun Control = 4%
    Economy = 24%
    Unemployment = 18%

    Can we now focus on the important stuff?!

    April 18, 2013 09:04 am at 9:04 am |
  9. GoneToPot

    "Public opinion loses out"? The vast majority of polls are partisian at best, look at the numbers and the people that they contact. If the public opinion lost out on this crappy piece of legislation then why the heck are so many guns being bought right now. It is because the "public opinion" in their polls don't represent the true majority of law-abiding American citizens. The Second Amendment was written to protect citizens from the government. I have no problem with background checks at gun shows and on-line buying but I do have a problem with the government trying to take away our rights to own firearms.

    April 18, 2013 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  10. Tom

    Shall we make list of the laws they have passed contrary to public opinion? It just happens this time it wasn't the way the vocal bunch wanted.

    April 18, 2013 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  11. Michael

    When all nations lay down there arms then all people will be free to do like wise.

    April 18, 2013 09:06 am at 9:06 am |
  12. teamaster

    Get a clue people–the NRA wants felons to be armed and a frightened populace.

    Sells guns.

    April 18, 2013 09:07 am at 9:07 am |
  13. Cathy

    SHAME SHAME SHAME! Your GOD or your constituents are NOT proud of you today! Election day 2014 is closer than you think!. So,the NRA was the highest bidder? Hypocrites,slime and dirt bags you are.

    April 18, 2013 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
  14. Rob

    I still don't get this bill. I know that internet sales get background checks... ALL guns get delivered... NOT TO YOUR HOUSE... but to a QUALIFIED DEALER only, where you get your background check.

    Our local sports shop (which also deals with guns) is hired by auctions and gun shows TO PERFORM BACKGROUND CHECKS before a gun gets handed over to a buyer.

    What most dealers say is that you need to enforce the existing laws. The STATES fail at enforcing excising laws, such as registering properly and timely, those that are mentally ill that should not own a gun.

    Enforce what exists, please before you try to enact additional gun laws.

    April 18, 2013 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  15. Boo

    All these politicians care about is getting re-elected. They don't give a damn about the citizens of this country. They should be reminded THEY WORK FOR US. They should be ashamed of themselves for their cowardice.

    April 18, 2013 09:11 am at 9:11 am |
  16. Anonymous

    And now Obama is upset because he didnt ramrod in legislation like obamacare that went against public opinion so either way politicians do what they want, not what they are voted in for.

    April 18, 2013 09:13 am at 9:13 am |
  17. Steve, New York City

    Confirms what everyone already kew – Washington is a joke.

    April 18, 2013 09:13 am at 9:13 am |
  18. buckeye

    Spineless senators! Let the movement to defeat Portman begin.

    April 18, 2013 09:14 am at 9:14 am |
  19. BigKim

    Is anybody surprised?

    Did any of you think these Congressmen were going to grow a spine all of sudden and standd up against the NRA Lobby just for the 90% of America that expanded supports background checks?

    Good grief!

    April 18, 2013 09:14 am at 9:14 am |
  20. Draka

    I saw this bill as being just taking and no giving by the pro gun control crowd. It would help if the president would in public acknowledge that gun owners have the right to use their guns to defend themselves.

    April 18, 2013 09:15 am at 9:15 am |
  21. jim

    still waiting to see this survey they keep talking about
    how many were asked
    what were the question (s)
    where did they ask
    when did they ask
    cause I gotta say 90% sounds like a lot of bull

    April 18, 2013 09:16 am at 9:16 am |
  22. Locaber

    Tis a good day for freedom

    April 18, 2013 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  23. Truther

    Clearly there's nothing more despicable than a career politician. The only way they'll pass any gun control is if its ammended with endless additional guns rights provisions. Its time people stopped pretending this is colonial america

    April 18, 2013 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  24. mique

    In case you had any doubts about whether congress works for the people or lobbyists, this should clear things up.

    April 18, 2013 09:20 am at 9:20 am |
  25. thomase

    I'm not sure whether it's sad or hilarious that we cannot even have a discussion regarding a topic such as universal background checks after a thorough compromise between both sides has been reached. How can we expect there to be any conversation about anything at all meaningful?

    You won't discuss a budget after compromise, you won't discuss guns after compromise, you won't discuss anything important so what use are you?

    April 18, 2013 09:20 am at 9:20 am |
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