April 17th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
12 months 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. The Truth Hurts

    Politicians exist for one reason – to get (re)elected and keep the gravy train flowing. If "86%" of the American people wanted this, do you realy think the vote would have even been close?

    April 18, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  2. anon

    I'm also tired of gun law supporters saying that the ONLY purpose of a gun is to kill. That's not true. A gun is also used as a show of strength, and as a tool for piece keeping, whether or not it is also used to kill something/one.

    April 18, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  3. Elliott

    No problem with trying to make it harder for people to vote, but it is impossible to get a vote done when it comes to background checks for buying a gun. Nice. :(

    April 18, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  4. Mark in San Diego

    CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser – So one of the things you are saying is that some of the Dem are a little concerned about getting reelected because of this. If so, then the majority in thier state don't aprove. So how does that trump the publics opinion.

    April 18, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  5. Aerin

    Gallup Poll: 91% of Americans support background checks for ALL gun sales.

    We cannot continue to allow the gun show loop hole and private sales to dodge background checks.

    Guns must be registered so that we can detect gun trafficking and for crime solving.

    Nothing about this tramples the 2nd amendment, these are simply reasonable limitations. People can keep their guns (I am a gun owner), but WE NEED THESE STEPS TO CONTROL GUN VIOLENCE.

    The gun lobby can scream as loudly as they want. The majority of Americans want this and so it shall be. The government is there to do the will of We The People. As usual, conservatives are vastly out of step.

    April 18, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  6. jey

    you keep saying public opinion but you never hear or listen to ours leave the 2nd. and us alone i pay taxes also

    April 18, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  7. teresabtrjk

    I'm ashamed to say my two state Senators voted against this bill. I have emailed both of them and called their offices leaving messages for them both. This is the email I sent to them.

    I must say I am so DEEPLY ashamed of the way you voted yesterday. Not only have you let down ALL your constituents in the State of Nebraska, you've let down every PERSON who will be killed because people who should not have access to guns are able to get them without submitting to a background check. Way to go, Bravo. I hope and pray you and your Loved ones aren't directly affected by your vote.
    Despair not Loved ones of Sandy Hook. Your deaths will not be forgotten.

    April 18, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  8. Ed

    "The American people are trying to figure out: How can something have 90% support and yet not happen?".

    Does this guy ever stop lying? A recent Gallop poll shows that only 4% support new gun control laws.

    Gee CNN, have you reported that the Saudi "person of interest" in the Boston Marathon bombings is being deported and I just missed it? And Obama just had a meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the White House to discuss the conflict in Syria. Yeah, right.

    We're about to witness another Obama cover-up just like we saw with Benghazi and Fast and Furious.

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

    I have now come to know that 100% of our politicians do not care what the american people want. It's money, political assurance for another term; that's what they care about. As far as I am concerned, the next horrifc shooting I will not follow or listen to media on it.

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

    These spineless self serving idiots in Washington don't represent the people, they represent the gun lobby and vote the way the lobby tells them too, and We the People are just as at fault because we are not smart enough to vote these worthless bozo's out of office, it looks like we get the representation we deserve.

    April 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  11. George

    i can NOT Belive people are so BLIND to think Back Ground checks will stop the Nut Jobs from doing such a Cowardly Act ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    April 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  12. Michael

    I'm glad to see so many other readers see the lie in the headline. For months, Obama and his followers were quoting outdated and false polls regarding the publics wishes. Well, 46 others also knew it was a lie. I'm glad those 46 had enough sense to research the true facts and opinion of the public.

    April 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  13. Paul

    Why would anyone be against making it harder to get a gun for those that are felons, those that are terrorists, those that are rapist, those that have mental problems????? Doesn't common sense tell you that we don't want those people to have weapons. This isn't about gun ownership for law abiding citizens, its about the NRA making millions for the gun manufacturers. If that is who these Senators represent, then they need to be removed and the quicker the better.

    April 18, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  14. Diddler_on_the_roof

    Another nice opinion piece CNN. I remember when CNN was the first place I went for news. Now, it's so blatantly left, it's painful to watch or read. Might as well be the New York Times

    April 18, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  15. Fields

    The "public" does not support more useless, feel-good gun restrictions. The "public" is not as stupid as the MSM thinks we are.

    Even if it did, we do not govern by polling data in our Democracy. Also, the reason we have the 2nd amendment is to protect individual rights even in the face of fickle public opinion. These bills deserved to die, one way or another.

    April 18, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  16. Matyellott

    51% Think Background Checks for Gun Buyers Will Not Reduce Violent Crime
    57% Think Enforcing Current Gun Laws More Important Than Creating New Laws
    The numbers he is using are not realistic.
    Rasmussen Reports

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  17. Anonymous

    The last poll before the vote revealed that more than 80% of American supported the bill. A government of the people by the people indeed.

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  18. Jason

    This is just pathetic. There is really nothing else to say. These Senators should be ashamed that they think such an obvious and logical law would decrease their chances at re-election. So you lose the 20% MINORITY of gun owners who actually think this is a bad idea. Now you have potentially lost the 80% of the general public who think your a coward.

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  19. govwatch63

    In other news: President Barack Obama warned Kim Jong Un this week that the North's threats against the United States and South Korea had only served to isolate the regime further... "Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was, we're not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don't get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way," he said.

    Really, Mr. President? You don't get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow get your way? Huh. Go figure.

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  20. bryan

    These restrictions wouldn't have stopped any of these people from getting guns. I think the people who got the guns would have been ok'd to get the same guns with this in place. I am pro second amendment and i 100% support the second amendment. Before you call me a gun nut understand that I don't even own a gun.
    Understand that tearing apart the constitution won't stop bad people from doing bad things.

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  21. Anonymous

    I'd like to know HOW MANY people were polled to come up with the figure of 90% of Americans wanted this? Because I've never been asked in a poll and neither have countless others... or did they just stop at 10 folks after 9 of them said yes?

    April 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  22. Middle Aged Gay

    I love how all these folks are experts on public opinion...

    April 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  23. Ali

    No thought to the 90% who will remember how they voted when they come up for re-election?

    April 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  24. teresabtrjk

    My two state senators voted against the bill. I've called both of them leaving messages and emailed. This is the email I sent.

    I must say I am so DEEPLY ashamed of the way you voted yesterday. Not only have you let down ALL your constituents in the State of Nebraska, you've let down every PERSON who will be killed because people who should not have access to guns are able to get them without submitting to a background check. Way to go, Bravo. I hope and pray you and your Loved ones aren't directly affected by your vote.
    Despair not Loved ones of Sandy Hook. The deaths of your Loved ones will not be forgotten.

    April 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  25. iceload9

    Hopefully this clarifies who's in charge in the Unite Corporations of America. Since the democrats have totally capitulate on unemployment, runaway healthcare costs an corporate welfare, whats makes them think anyones listening to them now?

    April 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
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