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. Anonymous

    90% was never a mentioned figure. Obama made that up after it was voted against. Everything I've seen up to yesterday was closer to 50/50.

    April 18, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  2. Love God with all your heart

    Public opinion is for the government to stay out of our private business. We have enough laws as it is. The law does not enforce current gun laws, so why would we waste our time with more gun laws?

    April 18, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  3. Just an observation...

    This is great vote in the face of an irrational response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook. The misleading polls and the useless “90%” results are indicative of what’s wrong with politics in Washington.

    Sandy Hook was a Gun Safety issue. An otherwise lawful and responsible gun owner failed to ensure the safe storage of her guns and an individual that had no business having access to those guns exploited that. Nationwide background checks and senseless restrictions were never going to address the problem, but without a doubt, would lay the foundation for future restrictions after the next inevitable incident – a result of misguided and ineffective efforts to date…

    April 18, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  4. daveinla

    I think members of the newsmedia who are confined to the ultra-liberal east coast Boshwash region are missing something here. Yes, public opinion polls show widespread support for background checks, but did those polls ask these people at what level of government they wanted these checks to be carried out? People are afraid of more intrusion in their lives from the federal government. Congress is at an all-time low in public opinion polls. Congress is the face of Washington D.C. and the people do not trust the federal government. if you have these background checks with the state government...it might fly.

    April 18, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  5. 0RacKL

    I just saw the NRA YouTube video warning against Obama's "gun ban." It was deliberately dishonest and the NRA "willfully lied," but apparently the NRA faithful fell for it hook, line and sinker - because they apparently can't do their own reading - and blanketed Washington with calls. The bill that was defeated in the Senate yesterday wasn't even about a ban of any kind.

    April 18, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  6. Patrick

    I would really like to see the questions the polling people asked. That might explain why the numbers are all ove the place. Also seem to be the exact opposite of what people I know would say.

    April 18, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  7. americanrage

    Since when do Democrats care what the majority of Americans want? They don't care when the majority wants illegal aliens deported. They don't care when the majority doesn't want gay marriage. They don't care when the majority wants the death penalty. And they certainly don't care when the majority doesn't want a tax hike.

    April 18, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  8. Dr Tom

    This Admendment may come up for a vote again. Please contact your Senators and let them know how you feel about this bill.

    April 18, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  9. Puddin

    I suspect many of the politicians who voted against it are probably involved in gun sales in some way. God forbid, even if a potential customer is mentally unstabe, that they miss a sale. No bill is perfect, but this would have helped, and a large percentage of American voters wanted it. Now if these same voters (and taxpayers) would remember the names of those from their state who voted against it when they vote in 2014 and thereafter, perhaps things in DC would improve for us all. I expect if some crazy killed a member of these politicians' families, they might think a little differently......well maybe not. "The love of money is the root of all evil."

    April 18, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  10. mario

    I think we should score this vote just like the NRA we have a list now it's that simple somebody has to care :(

    April 18, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  11. Lord Toronaga

    It was rejected because the left tried to slip in a gun ban. It wasn't about background checks. Who cares. Background checks already existed. I've never bought a gun with out one. We want to keep our semi's . PERIOD

    April 18, 2013 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  12. Realist

    Public opinion? No... More like "The public who actually would respond to such manipulated poll questions from CNN or other left leaning groups" opinion.

    I don't buy the narrative that a majority in this country is anti-constitution. Not yet... Despite all the best efforts of orgs like CNN... Not yet.

    April 18, 2013 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  13. AW

    Did you ever consider that the translation of what voters said in the polls did not make it through to the proposed legislation drafted? "Americans support tougher background checks" is such a blanket open ended statement, how could you draw any firm conclusions on that? Maybe just posibly the misguided senators who drafted this proposed legislation missed the mark and that's why it (rightly) failed to pass?

    April 18, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  14. Citizen

    Can each State Gov. pass the law as Connecticut assault weapons ban? If yes, then we don't need Senate or Congress to do anything!!!

    April 18, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  15. What?

    So basically, the 'no' votes would stop getting their payoff if they voted against the NRA. It's sad when a organization that really has no relevance anymore in my opinion can basically influence how this country is run because they have self interest senators in their pocket. Sad Sad Sad

    April 18, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  16. Lord Toronaga

    Secondly, if the public was really behind it...it would have passed. We the greater public say NO.

    April 18, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  17. sammy750

    Our lawmakers, the Senators have slapped the people in the face with the NO votes. Instead they choose to vote for the NRA and its money. We the voters have to make an easy choice now and defeat all the Senators in the next elections. We need to elect those individuals who support the people and not the lobbyist. Money seems to be the attraction to many politicians, taking a path to becoming millionaires from the lobbyist. Millions of voters are MAD and we will make changes in Washington, both the House and the Senate. We will defeat those who ignore the voters.

    April 18, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  18. Mike

    He blames the Senate and its Republicans. Last time I checked the Democrats controlled the Senate. But....what the heck...blame the right anyway.

    April 18, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  19. Mike

    Public opinion is this: we favor background checks. Notice it doesn't say: we favor universal checks that has the potential to criminalize 90% of gun owners. The people in favor of the expanded checks don't understand that we already have a check system in place that won't work unless you make it work. 44 prosecutions out of thousands is hardly a deterrent. People who say it was reduce the likelihood of another mass attack...need I point out Boston? This type of legislation is about control over the public, not about safety or any other BS. The people can't allow precedents like this to be set because it opens the door for a potential registry of either all gun purchases or firearm permit holders.

    April 18, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  20. Tom1940

    Beyond what is "already on the books", additional registration, agreed to by both friend and foe of this legislation, (it would have made no difference in the outcome of the Sandy Hook School attack), was not needed. The case has not been made.
    This is "feel-good" legislation by Fed/State/Local officials to say "we did "something!"". But it is and was rejected. Rightly so! A reading of the 2nd Amendment should make it clearly evident why this legislation should be defeated. It does nothing to go after the criminals. Instead it sets law-abiding citizens up to become criminals, because the complexity of the proposed legislation with it's many "in's and out's" would make it impossible for the average firearms owner not to be violating the law in some way or fashion.

    April 18, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  21. AJ

    If the public supported these background checks so much, why would these senators fear voting for this? The answer is the public support is waning. After Newtown, many people were horrified and wanted action. Manchin is a public example of this. The truth is, however, that the measures he and other have proposed will do nothing to prevent these types of horrific acts. Expanded BG checks wouldn't have prevented Holmes or Lanza from committing these acts just as outlawing pressure cookers, or tracking people that buy them would have prevented Boston. It is a sad fact that there are very sick and troubled people out there. No amount of governmental control is going to prevent that. The architects of this wonderful nation felt an armed populace was so important, they felt compelled to list it next to the freedoms of speech and religion and press. These are the components that keep a society free. While I was as sickened as every other American and parent at the shooting events over the last 12 months, I also understand that these events are not because of a piece of metal or polymer. They are done by people. Sick, twisted people.

    April 18, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  22. Robb

    First off, If I want a public opinion poll I look to Gallup, Pew Research, and so on! I dont take the left leaning CNN poll as anywhere near accurate! According to the latest Gallup Poll only 4% think gun control is an important problem! Now what this shows is the President was going to jam another legislation through in the midst of a bad economy and stalling job growth numbers! Background will NEVER stop criminals from obtaining weapons. As we just saw in Boston and those horrific events, NITWIT NUTJOBS will always find a way to inflict harm on a large scale!

    April 18, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  23. Bethes

    Why are they still trying to cram gun control down our throats when the majority of the people don't care about it? More people are interested in turning the economy around than gun control.

    April 18, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  24. Flashman

    It would have made a much better story if there was some analysis as to what exactly was in the bill. Was it just background checks – and if so for gun shows or all sales and were there loopholes? Or did it include other more controversial elements as well? This is intended as an apolitical comment.

    April 18, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  25. Brian

    The bill not passing says something, not what 90% of americans want but the future of a politician being re-elected for his own stability of having a job. For those politicians who voted nay, so next time a child dies by the hands of a person who should have never been allowed to purchase a weapon let those politicains remember a child lost there future because of a politician voting for his own benefits/future, instead of allowing a child to grow up. The blood of innocent children will be on the hands of those politicians who voted nay.

    April 18, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
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