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. BILL

    I went downtown today and asked the 1st 50 people "What is your opinion on gun controll?" 38 (76%) said I am opposed to it except for mentally ill or criminals/felons): 8 (16%) said I am opposed to assault weapons; 5 (10%) all guns should be confiscated/no guns/ or similar.

    Asked "Asked about background checks by the governmant: 41 (82%) No or hell no. 8 (16%) good idea. 1 (2%) refused to answer.

    Demographics: 28 males 22 females: 38 "white" 12 "black or other" –age estimate average 40; - apx 80 middle class.

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  2. john

    How can 86% of the American people want more gun control, when only 49% can afford a weapon?

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  3. nepawoods

    Public opinion didn't get trumped. The vast majority of the public doesn't know the details of the bill, and hence can't have an opinion on it.

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  4. celtblood

    It amazes and frightens me that so many here who call themselves Americans are ranting and raving because they want to give up their rights and liberties to a bunch of crooked politicians, who are misusing these tragedies to pursue their decidedly anti-American agenda. (Gun control is a tool of tyrants, read your own history and the world's history, and then think about what Obama is trying to do.) It's also hard for me to believe my fellow citizens are so gullible as to believe these polls accurately reflect the consensus opinion. Polls are like card tricks, they can be manipulated to get whatever results their sponsor wants. With the social networking we now have (cell phones, Facebook, forums such as this one, etc.), it's very easy to figure out where people are likely to stand on an issue, and use that in conducting polls. I would hate to think, if the polls were indeed correct, that so many Americans were that far out of touch with their own Constitution and their own history and identity.

    "Show me a man who is willing to give up his essential liberties for a little temporary safety, and I'll show you a man who deserves neither liberty nor safety." -Benjamin Franklin

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  5. Lance Ginest

    Keeping I. Mind of course, you liberal media mogul, that the sites you get your opinions from are notoriously liberal and not at all fair in the opinions given. I can start quit g polls that show 85% of Americans are against increased background checks. Why don't we try deviating from the stereotypical liberal media bias and report actual truth for once. I understand that is is hard to present the truth, especially Isfahan it doesn't Agree with your own ideas, but try it once. It is truly liberating to tell the truth.

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  6. Big Carl

    The gun laws that are all ready on the books have teeth and if they were followed most would be happy.. But you can't fix a crazy person who wishes to do harm to who ever I don't care. 8 year old's 17yer old's what's the difference there kids. but it's never going to stop. Every year as long as I have bin on this earth some crack pot has gone on a shooting rampage and that's 50 years worth. It's just the wiring in there heads go's goofy. and this really comes down to the mother of that shooter she was a survival nut job and did not lock up the guns from her state certified nut job kid. And one last thing if you please I live 30min from Sandy Hook and I know first hand threw freinds that are cops that that nut job only used hand guns in that massacre. So don't go around saying it's the assault weapons they found them in the mothers home and never used that's the Government trying to take away the rights of the people so chew on that one.

    April 18, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  7. Burt Lee

    False premise for story. No one, including the NRA, is against effective background checks that will effectively weed out those people that should not own a firearm. In this case, the devil was in the details. Bad bill that would have a lot of unintended consequences (or perhaps intended by sponsors like Sen. Shumer).

    April 18, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  8. Aaron

    Libs....you lost, just deal with it. "shall not be infringed"....remember those words. I don't believe any of these polls. I am not from rural America. I am from a highly populated area, and 8 out of 10 in this area do not want more background checks. I would LOVE to know where they get these absurd numbers. It is the leftist media polishing the numbers so they can make it seem as if the people want the BS that they spew. Our elected officials saw through it.

    Obamacare was implemented against the wishes of the majority, but that's perfectly ok, right?

    April 18, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  9. Nobody N. Particular

    Governments are NEVER a good shepherd of the citizen's rights, so it would be ludicrous to allow these people who would sell their mothers to get re-elect, to decide what rights we have. The framers of the Constitution clearly stated that their intentions for the Bill of Rights, and explained that these rights were granted by God, not Man, and that these rights were beyond the majorities ability to revoke.

    April 18, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  10. Josh

    Good. This bill wouldn't have stopped Newtown, or Aurora, or anything else. It was just the government making more laws so they felt better.

    April 18, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  11. Someguy

    Got to laugh at the left wing nutters demanding that anyone who disagrees with them be murdered or politicaly prosecuted. Begging for a Totalitarian state in the name of public "safety".

    April 18, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  12. rconatser1

    I'm a Democrat with a gun, purchased legally, and I went through a background check. Anyone who doesn't, shouldn't be able to get one. The NRA, the most successful domestic terrorist organization in America's history, is pure evil. They are strictly an advertising agency for the gun and ammo industry, and sell it to the idiotic masses by hiding behind the 2nd Amendment, scaring the morons by telling them their rights are being threatened. Sickening.

    April 18, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  13. Look closer

    It concerns me that the one poll was an international one...was this really an accurate poll of American citizens. The day after the election I had a poll call about guns and gun control. That was on November 7, 2012. I knew the administration was going to do whatever they could to make a huge deal out of this then. I live in a state where there is background check at gun shows. I have purchased guns at these shows. I still have concerns over this solving this issue. Who is going to be the clearing house for these background check. The CIA, the FBI, the State Police, Homeland Security. We know these agency work so well sharing information...that was sarcasm. Mental Illness, what constitutes that? If you take antidepressants is that considered mental illness? If someone is intent on committing a crime they will lie on a background check. If you think they can't lie and get by with it then you are too naïve. And our legal system, lets not get started on that and the loopholes that felons and illegals get by with when people who try to follow the law pay a price for things they didn't do. All these people who committed these horrendous crimes...who BROKE laws already in place...you really believe one more law will stop them. I can see a criminal saying oh, there is a law here I must not commit this crime...right. Think with some logic people, learn to think maybe would be better. You all want some one else to take care of you and you give away your freedom because you think it will give you security and keep bad things from happening. Sadly, you are wrong and are so foolish you will not realize what you are doing until all the freedoms are eroded.

    April 18, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  14. Matthew

    @Jim – you don't know what you are talking about. The bill was diluted from the form you are railing against. You prove once again how so many conservative positions are created by right-wing media outlets feeding you lies. Pure lies.

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  15. Daryl Hensley

    The Constitution was written to protect all citizens rights. To give these so called 90 percent the right to gun control, you must first take that right away from me! We are not now nor ever have been a democratic form of government but rather a representative republic. Go study your civics!

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  16. Nigel

    Dear Mr. Steinhauser, your headline should have read "Public opinion trumped by shoddy reporting". Public opinion doth not a CNN poll make. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that a majority of Americans (liberals and conservatives) jwant existing gun laws (i.e., background checks) enforced and harsher gun-related crime penalties, not arbitrary and ineffective new laws passed by chest-puffing politicians straining to win votes. We want increased attention to issues like mental illness, FDA-rubber stamp approval, and genetic/hormone modified Monsanto products in our children's school lunches.

    Why is there a distinct lack of investigative journalism into these issues by the mainstream media and instead a concentrated focus on the easy, attention-grabbing, and divisive "reporting" we see today? Our leaders on Capitol Hill pounce on every tragedy as an opportunity for political gain, and you, the media, fan the flames. You are failing this nation. But go ahead and pat yourself on the back and have another cookie.

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  17. Andy

    The only public opinion that matters is what constituents communicate to their members of Congress.

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  18. Scott

    It was funny watching President Obama have a tantrum on national TV. If he was serious about saving lives he would move to ban the private ownership of swimming pools. But this isn't about saving lives, it's all about the political agenda of the left. President Obama, if 90% supposedly favored this legislation then why didn't you campaign on gun control?

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  19. Steve Jans

    It's funny, Nobama claimed the gun lobby was spreading lies about the proposed gun laws and striking fear in the politicians heads. Sounds like Nobama's presidential campaign.

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  20. BSH

    Funny, public opinion was ignored when Obamacare passed, and that was just fine by CNN and the Dems. There's more than a little cognitive dissonance and selective ethics going on.

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    THANK YOU SENATE! That's my opinion for the polls. They spoke for the majority of America!

    April 18, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  22. Dan

    Simply appalling. Eighty-six percent of Americans want uniform background checks. The total NRA membership is a tiny fraction of the American public, yet these senators had the gall to vote against 86% of the public's wishes. Remove them in 2014. (I prefer to fire them now.)

    April 18, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  23. 2014Voter

    I will be a Sandy Hook voter in 2014. I will vote for candidates that will commit to sponsoring and voting for common sense regulation of gun ownership, including a ban on automatic weapons, high capacity magazines, semi-automatic weapons that can be easily converted to automatic weapons, and ammunition that is designed for military use ( armor piercing). Such legislation should also require a verifiable reason for someone to carry a concealed weapon in public places, and require universal background checks and a 7 day waiting period for actual transfer of ownership. In addition, I would hope these candidates will address the pitiful state of mental health treatment in the country by requiring non-discrimination in health insurance limits and co-pays for mental health treatment and hospitalization. That's my position and I am sticking to it. For those who don't agree with me – talk to the hand. I will not be persuaded otherwise. I'm just one of the "86%" that the Senate (and House) has just ignored, and I am outraged. I will not forget.

    April 18, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  24. Suzanne

    I'm not interested in left or right arguments; that just makes people more contentious. What's wrong with getting a background check to own a gun? We have to have background checks to volunteer in a school, which is much less dangerous to others.

    April 18, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  25. Anthony

    i think a no elected official should have unlimited terms in office.

    April 18, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63