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. regan flint

    NRA 1 all other clearer thinking Americans 0... The NRA lie? NO!

    April 18, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  2. grits29078

    I've never owned a gun but, I would NOT vote to stop others that purchase their guns legally. Criminals will always get their hands on guns no matter what the law says. I'm not a fan of guns either but, I do support the constitution and I always will. "You have the right to bear arms." I have no problem with that.

    April 18, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  3. GaryS

    Obama is the most shame full person in DC.
    Whine some more and chastise anyone who doesn't see things YOUR way. Parading around dead children for his political gain. Using taxpayer money to fly around drumming up money for the Democratic party during a budget crisis. Get real you hypocrite. The only thing trampled was your ego, too bad.
    How about fixing the broken NICS reporting system to include all 50 states. Right now only 22 states report their prohibited persons, how is that acceptable?
    Plus out of that 22 that do there is a lot of room for improvement with over half of them.
    Since the NICS system is the source to prevent prohibited persons from getting guns why not fix it before passing more legislation based on it?
    You can't improve the system without fixing the foundation.

    April 18, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  4. Jonus Grumby

    I had no problem with it if it passed or failed. On the surface it sounds like a good idea but in reality it would have done little to prevent those who aren't eligible from getting guns.

    April 18, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  5. El Tejano

    glk20c, the American people did not figh for gun control, the NR and a very vocal minority did. What The American people are trying to figure out is how can something have 90% support and yet not happen.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  6. Jerry A.

    The bills and amendments were filibustered by an un-named Republican Senator, which is why the bills could not pass even with a majority of votes. Why does the word "filibuster" not appear even once in this story? Why is that Senator's name not prominently stated? Business as usual for the GOP, blocking hundreds of votes, and dozens of nominees for judges and to run agencies.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  7. snowyowl

    The public trumped? Not yet. Not if the public demands a new Congress in the next election.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  8. cdean

    Polls can be biased depending on who you ask. That 90% stated in the article is pretty fishy! At opencongress.org I checked to see how my own congressman voted on "S.649 – Center to Advance, Monitor, and Preserve University Security Safety Act of 2013. A bill to ensure that all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a firearm are listed in the national instant criminal background check system and require a background check for every firearm sale, and for other purposes." Interesting that on that site, public opinion on that bill was only 11% in favor of the bill.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  9. Eddie

    You really think that the polls read like that. I am glad this was shut down, it is complete media propaganda that 80-90 percent supported this type of gun control.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  10. Sivick

    They should all be fired. 90% approval for this and they coudln't do it. You can't get 90% agreement from the american populace on a friggin pizza topping but this had it and it still couldn't pass. Congress is broken, and as a young voter, i have zero faith in it. I also will spend the rest of my life voting against republicans. I wonder how it feels to let down 90% of america. Maybe 90% of us weren't "real americans".

    Don't give me that "freedom" crap either from republicans. You'd take away religious, reproductive, voting and marriage rights away from whatever minority was displeaing you in a heartbeat. It's only freedom when it's something you want.

    April 18, 2013 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  11. OKC

    Matt it is because you are used to being a subject, we are not. So, yes it is because you are a Canadian.

    April 18, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  12. Lack-O-Pennies

    To really know what America thinks, you start by throwing every poll taken in the trash. There are no unbiased polls. A national referendum of legally registered voters with a simple honest true/false question, the only true poll of Americans. The media and our Government only provide poll numbers that support their agendas, regardless of the true American opinion.

    April 18, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  13. Beth Fitzgerald

    I think they voted to support the majority of public opinion. Your poll were what was slanted. Guns are not the problem and these proposals would have done nothing to present what happened in that school. People are the problem. Enforce laws on crime that are already on the books. Nobody blamed the bomb in Boston, the blame is on the person(s) that used it, just like crime with guns. A gun never hurt anyone without a person loading it, pointing it and pulling the trigger.

    April 18, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  14. treeez

    What if the senators were actually listening to their constituents and voted accordingly? All the media claims that the majority of the citizens wanted the bill to pass but there was no general vote from the people. Just because a politician says it is so doesn't mean it is. They have been known to bend the truth.

    April 18, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  15. Lucy

    Thank you, Senators, for upholding freedom and the will of the people! If it weren't for the media and whining liberals, I wouldn't know anyone who was for this. Background checks are already being done, people! Wake up to the fact that this administration wants to weaken "we the people."

    April 18, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  16. JinAZ

    It is a primary concern to all elected officials that the welfare of the general public is first and foremost what they must defend. Since somewhere between 80% and 90% of the polulace wanted strong background checks on all guns sales and 46 senators voted against them, it is not hard to imagine that those 46 senators will not be re-elected and should not be re-elected. They failed on the most funcamental thing they should be defending.

    April 18, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  17. john houston

    our esteemed senators are both fools and cowards.How can they cower to the nra,all they really care about is reelection

    April 18, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  18. cmcle

    Cagekicker - No matter the question, if no one asks your opinion, then clearly the results are not valid. I'll bet that most of your friends oppose any new gun regulations - further proof that large, scientific, random polls of the U.S. population can't possibly be accurate. After all, if the results don't jibe with your microscopic sliver of a perspective on reality, the results are flat-out wrong!

    Remember Nate Silver!!!

    April 18, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  19. debra

    Since the NRA has such a hold on our government then they should be held responsible everytime someone is killed by these phycos they protect and the families of the many victoms should be allowed to Sue them for financial gain. If they start getting hit in their pocketbooks like so many of our taxpayers are then they may think twice about sticking their opinions where it does not belong. Since the NRA suggested we have armed guards in all of our schools in this country let them pay for it not the taxpayers.

    April 18, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  20. cobbled-mule

    That trump card really bites. When it happens to your side. Hehe

    April 18, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  21. DVDCRR

    This was a horrible measure and it's good that it failed. Let me give you the facts. If you go to a gunshow to buy a gun, from a dealer, you fill out the form 4473 and go through a background check. On the internet if you buy from a dealer or out of state private citizen you go through the background check. There are already millions of checks annually. The anti gun folks are trying to capture private sales and gifting as well. These transfers are almost always between two hunters, friends, family members or shooting enthusiasts. If you can't keep drugs from tee.agers or .11 million actual people from entering the country how are new federal laws going to keep guns from criminals? The answer is they won't. But they willimpact millions of law abiding Americans. Take a look at who your average gun owners are. Business owners, farmers, ranchers...we are not the problem, people! Get back to thinking about what will actually help the children!

    April 18, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  22. robrickmon

    IIf we ran this nation on public opinion vs protecting rights, then the Supreme Court wouldn't have even heard the case against the California ban on gay marriage. After all, that law was passed by a majority.

    April 18, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  23. George Dixon

    2nd Amendment 1 – Obama 0

    April 18, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  24. Joe S

    Congress once again sold out to political ambition and self-serving interests. Let's not forget them in the mid-term elections. Give them the "justice" they deserve.

    April 18, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  25. kamspaug

    This is a perfect example of why our current formulation of bills is ridiculous. Right now, most of this forum is pointing to the fact that "90% of Americans support background checks." This is exactly right, but this bill contained too many other conditions that made it dead on arrival. Why is it that every bill has to be loaded with so much extra stuff. Propose a bill specifically for Background Checks. Then propose another bill that addresses "assault weapons". Then yet another that deals with magazine capacity. All this crazy "major legilation" does is give people an excuse NOT to vote for common sense issues that are maligned with their lobbiest positions.

    April 18, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
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