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. Chris

    This polling is obviously biased. There is no way 9 out of 10 Americans favor more gun control. I am from missouri and its a red state. Every one owns guns and no one i know...not a single person wanted these background checks. In fact since Obama's infamous speech against the 2nd amendment and signing 23 executive orders, Gun owners in Missouri have rallied to fight any gun control. Since those 23 executive orders, our state has expanded gun laws to be more forgiving and more constitutionally correct. There is no way 90% wanted more gun control. Missouri is not the only state with a majority of citizens rallying legislators to enact firearms freedom. The polls that say 90% for more gun control are pure hogwash. No way that is a real unbiased sample. Is it possible they only chose to poll people living in Big blue state cities? Americans citizens for the 2nd amendment lobbied and wrote their congressman and we were listened to! Thank you to all the senators that scuttled this terrible piece of legislation! Let freedom ring and live free!

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  2. Knightsix

    Polls have the same value as the Tooth Fairy. You may sit down now, Mr. President.

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  3. JV12

    Good. A unless waste of the pres time. How about he get back to the issues that really matter. We all wish he would do something that mattered.

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  4. ladyjag

    It is a shame that our Congress does not listen to the American Public. If you are an upstanding citizens, what is wrong with a back ground check, are you ashamed of your past or sometyhing, or do you have something to hide.

    I believe in the Second Admendent, I am from a family of hunters and fisherman. I have been around guns all my life. I was taught how to handle a weapon, i know not to shoot unless I know what I am shooting at.

    But is a crying shame that our Congress is in the Pockets of so many Speecial Interest groups, that they choose not to do the Peoples business, but the people that are paying them to vote their way. It is a shame that Congress cannot do their duty.

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  5. BigRay

    "Public opinion gets trumped in gun control defeat" ... if near 90% of the American people agreed with this type of Legislation, it would have passed without a whimper from the Right! You can't go into your local Starbucks, poll six people with a pointed question like "Do you think background checks are ok to own a gun?" and call that some sort of representation of the American populace on a complex subject. The Hyperbole of Liberal media seemingly knows no bounds. Of course this is the same group of crack journalists that told us there was a suspect in custody for the Boston bombings already, so take everything from lib-media with a grain of salt (or a pound!)

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  6. JeffersonLives

    It's a great day for America and our Constitution!

    April 18, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  7. myselfff

    haha I popped over to msnbc...its all wailing and gnashing of teeth "HOW could they ignore the will of the 90%?! they are easily manipulated and must have been bought off!!!"

    April 18, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  8. Texas

    4.5 million members of the NRA are controlling the policy of 300 million Americans. That's not democracy...that's congressional bribery.

    April 18, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  9. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Let's face it, there's NO where in the second amendment where it specify what kinds of weapons Americans can possess. Therefore banning of certain assault weapons is left for interpretation by our current govt and banning certain assault weapons is NOT a violation of any one's "fundamental rights." Please tell me where in the second amendment it says Americans have a right to bear "ASSAULT WEAPONS." Please tell me where it states that!

    April 18, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  10. Finklestink

    So much gets sunk in our system because of the need to protect some up and coming election. I think it is time we change the laws to ensure people can only be elected once. This would eliminate all of these politicians protecting their future jobs by voting in ways that don't reflect the people or their true beliefs.

    I would even be OK with extending terms a bit longer in favor of eliminating the ability to run in more than one election.

    April 18, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  11. An actual thinking man

    Great spin CNN! The public doesn't want background checks. What world do you live in?

    April 18, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  12. jaded_42

    Yes there is support for additional background checks; however the other provisions that kept being added/pushed into the bill is what created this poisoned pill that could not win.

    April 18, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  13. Damnyankee20

    This bill does NOTHING to reduce criminal behavior or help the mentally ill but does everything to further erode our Bill of Rights. You don't honestly believe felons are going to walk in gun shops or gun shows and try to purchase a firearm KNOWING they're subjected to a background check, do you? Are you people so removed from living in the inner city that you don't understand criminals are still going to get their foreign made TECs, Glocks, and Makarovs from their underground drug pipelines? You people need to climb down from your ivory towers and live among real people and get a real understanding of the world around you.

    April 18, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  14. JC

    Why wasn't this taken up in 2009-2010, when Obama had filibuster-proof majorities in both houses and could get it passed easily? Re-election worries?

    April 18, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  15. James PDX

    If it's right to require background checks in retail stores and pawn shops, it's right to require them on the internet and at gun shows for the same reasons. Conversely, if you're saying it's not right to require them at gun shows and on the internet, you're saying it's not right to require them at any time or place and that you think every person should have full and immediate access to guns. But that is the stance of the NRA and conservative extremists. It's just plain sick, especially since it's backed by the pure greed of the NRA who only defend your 2nd amendment rights because they think they'd go broke without them.

    April 18, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  16. mightyduk

    Political suicide for the GOP.

    April 18, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  17. BOONE LANE

    Strange that CNN leads with "trumps public opinion" to spin this defeat as a bad thing. As I recall, Obamacare was also underwater in public opinion polls, yet CNN praised that legislation!

    The reason these senators voted against these gun control amendments is simple: They want to get re-elected!

    April 18, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  18. drrichard

    Reid really failed not having the guts to check the filibuster rule when he had a chance. And this country has failed to make even token efforts to control handguns. As an American I am truly ashamed of what Congress has become.

    April 18, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  19. kemikal

    I bet each one of them would be rushing to approve such a bill had it been their child(ren) that took a bullet in Newtown. I don't know when it's going to sink in that most of these politicians care nothing about you (us). It's only about how fast they can line their pockets doing deeds for their wealthy pals...in this case the NRA. I've cancelled my membership to the NRA; would rather not be associated with them in any way. Personally, I don't see a problem with background checks. I own a Springfield Armory 40 and 45 ACP, soon a Barrett Lapua (hunting and practice at long range); outside of the Barrett which is not for protection but sport, what else do I need for protecting my home? I see no reason to allow average citizens to purchase automatic weapons. But, like I said; when it's your child the rules will change!!!

    April 18, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  20. StreetSmarts

    Here's a clue... I know that you guys like to report that one of your political initiatives is supported by 90% of the population but your polls are not correct. The People do not trust our Government. Have you wondered why there has been a massive stampede to the stores buying all of their weapons and ammo? Senators represent the people and it looks like the people have let the senate know what they really want....

    April 18, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  21. Hank Hobson

    It's odd that so many politicians and those in the media are blaming the NRA and other gun lobbies for this bill being voted down. If 90 percent of the population really supported this bill, wouldn't a politician be committing political suicide by voting it down? The fact is that this bill would have paved the way for violations of HIPAA medical record privacy laws and yes, a gun registry. This bill being defeated isn't a win for the gun lobby, it is a win for all U.S. citizens who value their privacy and their property rights.

    April 18, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  22. fastrack

    Gabby Giffords used exactly the word I said when I heard: "COWARDS". Pretty sad, we elect them, we pay for them, and those cowards are OWNED by the NRA.

    April 18, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  23. NorCalMojo

    Show me the poll saying 90% of people want a national database for the mentally ill.

    April 18, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  24. neoritter

    I'm not against expanded background checks, but to hear it explained by them on the Senate floor it sounded like the amendment wouldn't have changed anything. They would've made intrastate internet sales require a background check (interstate sales already require it) and they would've made all private sales at gun shows require a background check. They still left most private sales intact. It didn't really add anything, so voting for it was all risk.

    That said, I paid attention to the votes on the Feinstein amendment that I am against. One state senator is getting my vote, the other just lost it.

    April 18, 2013 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  25. Josh Thrasher

    It sounds to me like public opinion was not trumped at all. If all these Senators were voting for their districts, then it sounds like to me that the representative democracy worked as designed in this instance. As always the media is trying to make people feel wronged when the system actually worked.

    April 18, 2013 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
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