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. John

    This Bill is so misleading CNN should right a story on the details of the law instead of pretending all internet and gun show sales aren't currently required to get a background check. They should also write the truth about how this changes the transfer laws. And they should write the truth on how only ONE government agency is outlawed from creating a registry while leaving the door open to any other agency to do the task.

    April 18, 2013 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  2. Uncle Mike

    Not sure who CNN is polling...

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  3. Big D

    When you poll for public opinion where almost all opinions are biased it isn't really a true reading of what the public wanted, as the results show.

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  4. Bob

    The NRA has blood on it's hands.

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  5. hxs

    Public opinion did NOT get trumped, the public's representatives represented the public's choice for once. It is a democracy, get used to it.

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  6. Sick of it

    I'm sick of hearing about politicians not voting according to their constituents wishes because they're "too afraid to lose the next election." Maybe they should lose and get someone in there who will vote in the direction that the people want the country to move in. This is the problem with politicians: They're too pre-occupied with keeping the cushy jobs they have that they don't do those jobs.

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  7. Give mw a break

    That is a bold face lie that the public wanted this. Yes, Some do but no where near a majority. That is why In a Democratically controlled Senate, Democrats failed to pass this Anti-American bill. They would have lost their re-election. Why?? Because a majority of the people are against it. Who is the liar??? OBAMA!

    April 18, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  8. ned

    "Moments ago, the U.S. Senate decided to do the unthinkable about gun violence - nothing at all," read the email from anti-gun violence PAC Americans for Responsible Solutions, according to the Arizona Republic. "Over two years ago, when I was shot point-blank in the head, the U.S. Senate chose to do nothing. Four months ago, 20 first-graders lost their lives in a brutal attack on their school, and the U.S. Senate chose to do nothing. It's clear to me that if members of the U.S. Senate refuse to change the laws to reduce gun violence, then we need to change the members of the U.S. Senate."

    These are the words of Gabby Giffords and we need to heed them in 2014. We need to all work hard to do what we can to change the legislative players in 2014 and 2016 who will stand up to what 90% of the public wants. Although it would be easy to throw our hands in the air and give up, I say we work even harder to make the changes we want. No one said this was going to be easy. Look forward to 2014 and 2016!

    April 18, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  9. Bill39

    This bill would have passed, except for the maneuvering of the minority. Once again, the minority blocks Congressional action.

    April 18, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  10. Jason Plastow

    If this was any other country with common sense, we would have had martial law instituted by now to override this waste of space Congress. This is only further evidence that the Congress now officially works for corporations, and not the citizens who elect them to office. I hope every American politician rots in hell.

    April 18, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  11. Alex

    This is complete boofoonery.

    April 18, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  12. tim

    I'd love to see where you're getting info for your polls. The biggest "public opinion" I've seen thus far is that of a nation that dislikes extra gun control measures. IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT.

    April 18, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  13. BC

    "86% of the public supported some form of background checks" Really? I'm part of the public and I was never asked my opinion. I'm getting sick of these pollsters. 86% of the the public that was POLLED! Obama claimed that the gun lobby lied, Really? Pot meet kettle.

    April 18, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  14. Curt

    The reason Mr. President is that you and your gun control cronies lie. If the law was simply expand background checks to include Private non relation sales AND included language to fund the program to allow private citizens access without logging the gun into a licensed FFL and paying their tranfer cost, This might have had support BUt in usual Washington style there was lines and lines of items that were not related to question.

    April 18, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  15. PowerBiker

    Now it's time for us to all work to have these politicians who supposedly are representing us to be voted out of office. If they go against 90% of the people's sentiment who do they actually represent.

    April 18, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  16. ironmike

    Nobody in government tells the truth including you Mr President

    April 18, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  17. America

    Wheres the petition to remove obama im pretty sure 90% of america wants him and joe out...

    April 18, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  18. Anthony

    this is why there needs to be term limits at all levels of Government Office.

    April 18, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  19. BeReasonable

    Not a single gun rights group supported the measure. Even measures the gun rights groups supported were voted down. Congress has lost the art of _compromise_, and are only controlled by the extremist views of special interest groups.

    Meanwhile, we're losing the war on drugs, drugs and cheap guns come in, money and expensive guns go out. At some point some smart people will realize that once we remove sources of illegal money from the drug cartels that the gang violence that has been spilling into the country will go away. America needs to start realizing that it is much cheaper to shut the borders tight than it is to pay for all the people we incarcerate. The next fight in gun violence is therefore the upcoming Immigration bill.

    April 18, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  20. Oh - CNN...

    Public trumped? – absolutely not! This is a case where there is a safety net built into the political system to compensate for the kind of blatant showmanship that Obama et al. have done the past few months, parading the Giffords around, Newtown parents, etc. Some key Senators realized that this grandstanding was a clear threat to American's civil rights, and it was soundly defeated – hopefully to never showboat again!

    April 18, 2013 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  21. Chck

    Remember the names of the folks who sank the bill. Vote them out.

    April 18, 2013 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  22. conservative

    Can we now get on to solving the economic issues now, instead of following the left's dogma of repealing amendments they dont like?

    April 18, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  23. Jay chung

    This is about background check on guns. They wont take away your right to bear arms.

    Have some common sense, and pass the bill.

    April 18, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  24. SpHa

    This headline is a lie. It did not fail because of the background checks. It failed because the same bill also tried to limit the types of weapons a private citizen could purchase.

    I own weapons. It is true, and I agree, that ALL transfers of ownership, sales and otherwise, should always be processed along with background checks. I do not think it unreasonable for America to ask me to use my second amendment rights responsibly.

    But banning any types of weapons that are currently legal to purchase is a waste of time. Americans need to pay attention. Do not let your government gain any more control over you through fear.

    April 18, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  25. Pam

    minute percentage of the population = public opinion polls

    April 18, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
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