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. Joe Clark

    On the positive side the American voters know exactly who needs to be removed from Congress. There are 46 cowards that are more concerned about losing the support of the NRA than the votes of average American citizens! With the exception of four Democrats they all are Republicans. Money ( campaign funding) truly is the root of all this evil! You can find their individual names at the Politico web site.

    April 18, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  2. Will_NOT_Give_My_Rights_Away

    I like this here we have a government giving away billions to oil companies and people saying "Oh remember who voted against the gun bill" well if you all had your collective heads out of your that confined space in your backside they wouldn't be in office today. They are the same ones giving billions to different companies every year and you did nothing well looks like you loose once again.

    April 18, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  3. Phlovent

    No such thing as truth , just opinion and propaganda . So sad .

    April 18, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  4. Joe Clark

    On the positive side the American voters know exactly who needs to be removed from Congress. There are 46 senators that are more concerned about losing the support of the NRA than the votes of average American citizens! With the exception of four Democrats they all are Republicans. Money ( campaign funding) truly is the root of all this evil! You can find their individual names at the Politico web site.

    April 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  5. Jane Hynes

    Since when did the Congress (both houses) stop getting paid by the American people and start getting paid by the gun lobby. I am disgusted with their decision. It's a sad day in America when the majority of Americans who favor more gun control (government by the people) are ignored.

    April 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  6. gpzjack

    Can we stop pretending the NRA is some corporation. The media propaganda machine is doing a heck of a job. How can the NRA be against public opinion when the NRA represents millions of Americans? Background checks would not have made a difference in any of the recent major killings. I have no problem with having them but the fact is that they will not change anything. What good are they if the Legal system doesn't prosecute the people that are denied.

    April 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  7. bigdoglv

    Just maybe it is not the gun lobby but many more gun owners that took the time to contact their reps. Personally I do not buy the 90% figure going around. They sure have not asked the folks I know.

    April 18, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  8. bob

    you people are like mad dogs. public opinion polls? neither you or anyone you know has taken part in any such poll. it's funny how whatever cnn reports is taken as gospel and their pundits are the new messiahs. the reason matters like gun control are NEVER put to the popular vote ( you remember popular votes..the one where actual people voted and the majority won?) is because there would be no doubt as too the real outcome. and that all the new laws you could think of are no better than the ones that exist. if laws on the books were enforced it would do the job. if criinals actually served their time ,crime would come down. if repeaters were kept in prison,if death sentances would be carried out,crime would come down. if the people incharge of newtown schools had done their job those kids would still be alive. put the onus on the REAL criminals..not on the law abiding citizens.

    April 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  9. UDidntBuildThat

    Could it be that AP-GfK poll this month showed that 49 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws down fr 58%? Hey CNN! I have my poll too!

    April 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  10. feeling red in a blue state

    Obviously those of you who are "mad" have never paid attention to the government or the legislation they pass. Obama has told you what he plans on doing! (1 set the base framework "passing common scense gun control laws". (2 build upon his laws one at a time. Amendment after amendment until his laws are complete and there is total weapon confiscation. Maybe we should ask the people in guatamala,venezuala,cuba,cambodia,russia,turkey,china or even germany about how well THE SAME LAWS worked out for them and the estimate 56MILLION dead because they couldn't defend themselves from a tyrannical government.

    April 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  11. Phlovent

    White Christian Conservatives ( with jobs ) are evil and racist low information voters . They are bitter clingers to thier bibles and guns , a threat to everyone who wants a progresive safe America . Take thier guns away and make America safe ! End White Priviledge now and embrace fairness and opportunity !

    April 18, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  12. Buck

    The polls saying the majority of Americans support background checks (that are already in place in most states) are LIES. Try polling the rural AMERICANS who support the Constitution.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  13. kelub

    So when you agree with it it's "the will of the people," but when you don't it's "lobbyists and career politicians." Got it.

    Maybe those who voted against it knew what the will of the people they were representing was, and choose to vote to represent their will? These poll numbers that CNN uses are, by their own admission, their polls. Plus, it's easy to agree vaguely that "more background checks" are good without actually talking about the specifics. Unenforceable, vaguely worded legislation is not the answer.

    I can't STAND the tea party, or most of the republican party, for that matter, so I'm not an apologist for their cause by any stretch. I just think that people should recognize that this isn't a cut-and-dry issue, and that voting against something doesn't mean that they represent something evil. If you believe that these issues are as easy to decide as the media tries to portray it, then you're no better than the Faux News kool-aid drinkers on the other side. The country's politicians overwhelmingly voted for Iraq's invasion as well, and naysayers were labeled as unpatriotic – and look where that got us. Let's not ostracize those who vote no, even when something's popular – they have more guts than most to try and actually represent their constituants first.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  14. elmanu

    Well... you want guns, you have shootings, easy as that.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  15. rr

    This is not the end.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  16. RV Doug

    How can a Canadian hunter kill a moose with one bullet when an American needs a fully automatic and 30 rounds to kill his own neighbours.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  17. mike

    god bless America! reason trumps fear, many more people die in car accidents than by firearms.

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  18. Littlemama23

    They keep touting numbers like 90%. They are way off bass. In my circle of life, only about 1% want bans, reforms, tougher background checks.
    There are too many, far more important issues to be working on. Our government is so backwards, wasteful, and ignorant about real life for common people in the United States today!

    April 18, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  19. Mike

    Love the leftist media. Public opinion is not the same as the socialist media's opinion. I think a popular vote in America would uphold what the founding fathers wrote in our constitution despite our media's attempt to sway public opinion with there doom and gloom coverage of only one side of the story. Where are the reports of muggings, robberies, home invasions stopped by people with firearms? Happens every day buy our media wont report on that because it shows liberty is alive and well in our country. We dont need the government and press to dictate to us what we need to be happy. Thats what the soviet union was about.

    April 18, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  20. Tom

    I'm thankful for the NRA, NAGR, and GAO for opposing this obamanation of legislation.

    April 18, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  21. Guest

    How can they not pass something that "90%" of the American public wants? The same way that they pass things that 90% of the American public are against. They represent nothing but their own self interest.

    April 18, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  22. confused

    why is it that 1st amendment rights (& it is the first amendment for a reason) can be restricted (one cannot yell 'fire!' in a theater, one cannot threat the president, defame an individual), while 2nd amendment rights are so sacrosanct that if one attempts to restrict, or even interpret the amendment in the context of a world of governments that arm its militia, it is considered not only a threat, but anti-American. i am a veteran, & see no purpose in civilians having weapons of war, nor can there be any doubt that restricting guns via background is not only non-threatening to me or you, but is a step in the right direction to protect others from lunatics.

    April 18, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  23. equinox

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

    ...maybe Mr. idiot president because the legislation was crap?!?!?

    April 18, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  24. John

    What on earth makes anyone think the American public's voice wasn't heard and that our Senators failed? Quite to the contrary, they heard and voted with the American people. What part of "shall not be infringed" do the meek and scared who would give up their constitutional rights, to live in a false security not understand?

    April 18, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  25. RickV

    What actually got trumped is the left wing agenda, and the media BS who felt certain that this was the right thing to do. The only thing the public needs from Congress is to throttle the Obama Administration.

    April 18, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
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