April 17th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
1 year 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. Tony Newman

    Why bother. The NRA owns the politicians in Washington.

    April 18, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  2. Simone

    He wants to know how it can have 90% support and still fail????? Why not ask how his "healthcare" plan passed when the majority of the people were against it. Life's not fair Mr. Obama.

    April 18, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  3. Ronald

    Obama lied to everyone. 90% do support 'background checks'...which ALREADY EXIST for ALL retail store, gun show, and internet purchases. 90% did NOT support the Manchin bill. If you read Manchin's bill in detail the wording gives full permission to Attorney General to create a Federal registry despite the registry penalty in the bill which is voided by the use of the word "notwithstanding." Current polls show that over 50% of Americans were AGAINST the unconstitutional Manchin bill. Senators have their own internal polls and they evidently were seeing that many Americans actually read the bill carefully and caught on.

    April 18, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  4. steve murphy

    As a Canadian, all i can say to you people is,,your an embarrassment to democracy,,

    April 18, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  5. Mark

    Gee Whiz, you think there MIGHT HAVE BEEN SOMETHING ELSE in the bill besides the background checks? If it's SO SIMPLE, why doesn't Congress just have a vote on that SINGLE issue? Why don't they? I'll tell you why they don't, becuase that bill wasn't simply background checks that's why. And the person up there, with his pic, who wrote this article KNOWS that, but he won't mention that because he isn't doing his JOB. Journalists and Weatherpeople, the only TWO jobs where you don't have to do your job to keep your job.

    April 18, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  6. livingston

    The senate has sent America a message with this vote. That message was, "We don't care what the majority of Americans want. We will do what the NRA and a very vocal minority want.". Well, how about we send them a message back/. Everyone who voted against this bill and every republican gets voted out of office in their next election. Maybe that will remind them that they were put there to do what the majority of Americans want.

    April 18, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  7. AngryJohnny

    Those polled probably have no clue what is and isn't already a law on the books. Just like most of the senators probably don't know what is and isn't in the proposed legislation. Remember this jewel of a quote "we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it" -Nancy Pelosi. The president paraded out those families of Newtown as a public spectacle. Then he publicly whines like a little baby when he loses. No Class, no surprise.

    April 18, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  8. Markel Wiggington

    I love the obfuscation...if Republicans block a gun measure it is called out again and again directly by C NN, M SNBC, etc; the Democrats block this gun measure and that fact is lost in the article's fluff. What's worse is the purposeful mentioning of both parties (w/Repubs first) when discussion of the down-vote is had. The average A-moron-ican reading this article thinks the Republicans are who blocked the Bill.

    April 18, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  9. LifeinVA

    I'm all for gun rights, and I own guns myself. And I also believe that these extended background checks would not have been effective at preventing criminals from obtaining guns. But I just don't understand why anyone would be against background checks for ALL gun purchases...Internet and gun shows included. It's just common sense...

    April 18, 2013 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  10. T. Lee

    NRA = "Not Relevant Anymore"

    April 18, 2013 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  11. Pat

    "Public opinion gets trumped in gun control defeat", should read, "Americans reject tyranny".

    April 18, 2013 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  12. Jim J

    I consider myself a conservative R and find myself disgusted by our leaders who are falling prey to special interest groups pressures, and re-election hopes. When polls show 95% of the country WANTS gun control and background checks, yet they can't get it passed, something is very wrong. That tells us all very clearly WHO really is running the country and what really influences decisions. I believe there's a way to fix with 3 simple steps if anyone could possibly get the laws revised.... First, terms for Congressman and Senators should be 1 TERM. WHY? Because it removes the entire game of voting to insure you get re-elected. Being in government by the people and for the people means it's NOT A CAREER but a DUTY! Just like Jury Duty. We'd find our country far more honest and representative of the good people if we make this one change. In addition, remove entitlements for government officials. They need to live the same way we all do with the same risks and job benefits... life long pay is just sick. Finally, special interest lobbying is BANNED forever. Again, this is not a government that should be swayed... that's not "Fair and balanced"

    April 18, 2013 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  13. wildbunny

    once again our lawmakers we elect look us in the eye and nod yes and then turn a deaf ear and ignore us when it comes to the vote because they want to save their jobs instead of lives

    April 18, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  14. TANYA WEATHERSBY

    A win for American freedom and liberity today. Thank you to the senators who voted nay!

    April 18, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  15. Michael

    Let us focus on Senators who voted against the Background Checks and defeat them in the next election. I am sure people who support the Background checks can gather more money than NRA.

    April 18, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  16. Ray

    Never saw the Background Check bill in it's entirety,but I would posit the following. If a bill were to be proposed that simply said background checks would be required on all sales/transfers except to family members,long time friends or shooting club members,I think it would have easily passed and the poll numbers would have been proven correct. But, for some reason, our government cannot seem to do anything simple and straightforward. And,therein lies the rub. Many of us don't trust what is stated in the newsbites and know the actual bill/rule will be entirely different. Remember Clinton–depends what the definition of "is " is?? or Nancy telling us to pass Obamacare so we could find out what is in it? So with this and many other issues, we nmay agree that action must be taken ,but have little faith in what the final product will look like and than it is too late.

    April 18, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  17. larry c

    I think the best part was Biden and his grumpy Walter face.

    April 18, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  18. Papabear

    Vote them all out of office.

    April 18, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  19. Anonymous

    Irony, people whose job includes responsibility of leading the country towards better future, can't do the job because they fear they will lose their job.

    April 18, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  20. Brian Bender

    The President, Feinstein, Bloomberg, and others have jumped at the chance to use the Newtown tragedy with the cynical intention of promoting partisan politics and to providing payback for the support of the “anti-gun lobby”. This is not Hope or Change or Leadership and should be rejected by every American.

    Everyday our leadership has an opportunity to look at the root causes of crime and violence and enact policies to address these issues. Instead we get opportunistic propaganda, rhetoric from the “bully pulpit”, and a tax payer funded campaign to demand for an up or down vote on the failed ideals of the “anti-gun extremists”.

    I would hope that our government would defend our Fundamental Rights and ask that congress instead look at the root causes of crime and violence such as poverty and lack of opportunity/education, the War on Drugs, revolving door justice system/plea deals, and maybe also look into the role of SSRI drugs.

    It’s time to move on from “gun control”.

    April 18, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  21. Dagger2014

    Nobody polled me and my gun owning friends on whether background checks should be increased..... Evil will always exist and those who want to commit crimes will find a way. We should focus on enforcing current laws and not making more. There is no way to legislate to a perfect world. Until people move out of their parents basements and quiet solving the worlds problems in coffee shops we will continue to have ridiculous polls and useless laws.

    April 18, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  22. Sam Maarella

    It failed for one simple reason: it didn't address the core of the problem. SNL was spot on with their mockery of the proposal.

    April 18, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  23. John Doe

    Seriously? It didn't pass because they're too worried about getting re-elected? GET RID OF CAREER POLITICIANS!

    April 18, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  24. Jeff--Tacoma

    The failure of this common sense approach rest on Harry Reids sholders...if he had done something about the filibuster rules when he had the chance this would not have happened. Maybe Dems should take a page from the teabaggers play book and start primaring some of our disappointing Senators.

    April 18, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  25. Tom Kurtz

    I really don't have a issue with the background check,what I do have issues with is giving billions to countries that hate us while we have homeless and mentally ill living on the streets. I have issues with Congress not living by the same rules as their constituents,I have issues that we don't require drug testing for people on welfare.I have issues that we aren't taking as good of care of our vetrans as we should be. I have issues that the President goes on expensive vacations and I can't afford, like millions of Americans to take one.
    I have issues that congress can't show some common sense and meet in the middle. I These aren't Republican or Democrat issues,they are common sense issues.

    April 18, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
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