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. justrural

    I am interested as to what public opinion has been trumped. This past weekend I took a trip to 3 1/2 hr trip to Chicago. I made a few stops along the way to shop for a gym bag. Out of curiosity, I checked the ammunition supplies at the local sporting goods stores. There is little remaining in Hobart, IN Dicks Sporting goods (for all intensive purposes – a suburb of Chicago); there is none in North Judson, IN per my Uncle; there is very little left on the shelves of 2 gun stores, a walmart, and a big R in my home town of Wabash, IN; there is little left on the shelves of Lewisville and Owenboro, KY, and Evansville, IN, per two of my closest friends. My guess is that this is occurring throughout the country.

    Ammunition is needed for a gun to be functional. People want there guns, they have spoken by the purchases made following the past two presidential elections, the tragedy in Colorado and Connecticut. And now they are speaking through the purchase of ammunition in the face of stricter gun laws.

    So whose public opinion is being trumped?

    I am pro background check, anti registration, anti restriction.

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  2. RL

    Any responsible sane individual would want someone to go through a comprehensive background check before they can buy a weapon. In a lot of cases a background check is required to get a JOB!

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  3. chuck

    This will play a big role in 2014..It was background checks for god sake..big deal..

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  4. chanruss

    The Politicians and the people from Newtown are trying to take our rights away and destroy the Constitution. The people from Newtown along with the Politicians who are trying to pass more gun laws are the cause of the bombing in Boston and are guilty of murder of an eight year old boy. These Politicians could have prevented this bombing if they were not so busy trying to take our guns away and our 1st amendment rights away. Now there is an episode of Family Guy not allowed to be watched just like and episode of Johnny Bravo before 911. We do not live in a free country anymore, just a country that has become full of crybabies that are scared of guns. Because of the people from Newtown and Politicians there will be more destruction like a nuke going off in one of our cities in the Northeast. The Politicians taking our guns away along with the people from Newtown are to blame for the nuke which will destroy one of our cities.

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  5. cmcle

    Matt from Canada - I sympathize with your confusion about Americans' fascination with guns. Perhaps two simple, exemplary facts will help you realize you can probably only partially understand the fascination, as well as many other curious characteristics of Americans. First - the Gallup polling organization has for more than three decades conducted an annual survey during which they consistently find that about 45-48% of Americans believe the earth is only about 6000 years old. The latest results, published last fall, found 46% expressing this belief. How they square this belief with the whole of reality is something to ponder. My best guess is they don't try, because it never occurs to them to try. Second - about 2-3 years ago I read the results of a survey that found, among other things, that 43% of Americans believe that, by setting our clocks forward in the spring for daylight savings time, we actually cause the sun to shine an extra hour each day. So you see, if you try to understand Americans, you need to take into account just how loud and proud of their ignorance so many are.

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  6. Leftcoast_Mike

    people aren't born nuts, they become nuts. Just because you hold your nose high proclaiming to the world that your guns are locked up safe doesn't mean you aren't going to flip your lid and grab that gun.

    April 18, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  7. merlinfire

    The 90% poll garbage was pretty obviously a lie.

    We the People just didn't buy it.

    April 18, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  8. A_Mom

    I do not believe background checks will stop gun violence, since surveys have indicated the criminals either steal their guns or buy them from other criminals. Our government is helpless to stop the flood of illegals from Mexico or the flow of drugs into this contry or the gang violence in cities like Chicago. What makes you think that background checks of sane people will help? What's next? Will I have to go through a background check when I buy my next pressure cooker?

    April 18, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  9. Mark B.

    I do nort for a second believe the majority of Americans want guns controlled in any way. You must be high to believe that.

    April 18, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  10. TomGI

    I find it interesting that pro-gun factions always insert "the fact" or "it's a fact" into their comments. CNN should develop a script the requires a web source when the word "fact" is detected so we can vet these claims for ourselves.

    April 18, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  11. OKC

    debra........you want to protect our children at the cost of someone else's rights but you are unwilling to pay a little more in taxes to keep them safe!!!
    What a jewel you are, obviously you don't care about our children but only taking away other citizens rights.

    April 18, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  12. Anon from Ma.

    This is why we have the 10th Amendment. The founding fathers sought to limit the powers of the Fed Gov't, and give the power to the states, anything the Fed does not "expressly delegate". The mistake is thinking we need a blanket policy to apply to all states... many of whom neither want, nor need such policies. The 90% of polls figure is garbage, in that, of course when you ask someone in the wake of Newtown, if they support background checks for criminals or those with mental illnesses, they will say yes. It's a loaded question. But the definition of criminal? Mentally ill? That's the difficullt part. That, and that's not all that was in the bill. To ban any weapon is to only make it impossible to legally purchase the weapon. It does nothing to stop anyone from doing anything illegal... and in that, the bill accomplishes nothing quantifyable.

    April 18, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  13. massconn72

    I am so glad that we keep voting for those people. At least here in CT they voted the right way. I thought they were supposed to REPRESENT" us not themselves and their lousy attempt at keeping their jobs. Maybe it is time for another revolution. We are getting awful close to "taxation without representation" all over again.

    April 18, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    Sure I can get an 86% to agree to an issue by just polling supporters of that issue. Why don't you publish the survey methodology if this are really random sampling?

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  15. OKC

    California
    Thank you, avery good point not mentioned here of course.

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  16. Bob

    Public opinion did NOT get trumped on Obamacare . If you recall he was re-elected by a large amount. In fact it was the GOP tea drinking conversatives who got thumped.

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  17. Wrw

    It was public opinion that was ignored it was what was heard thru all the grass roots efforts to get our voices heard and to overcoming political use of a horrible crime to advance an agenda of the few. In my opinion they should be ashamed for using that tragedy. Why didn't they bring everyone of the parents to get all of theirs opinion not just the ones that fit with theirs

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  18. drowlord

    This just in: Angry mobs failed to overrule constitutionally codified personal liberty in narrow senate vote. Next on the agenda, the senate will vote to strike parts of the 1st amendment as applied to internet technology, the last remains of the 4th amendment, the 6th amendment (a speedy trial no longer being practical), and eliminating the pesky 10th amendment which has been ignored for a half century, anyway.

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  19. EatThemUpYum

    Sham polls that cover a few thousand people from blue cities and towns do not equate to Public Opinion.

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  20. WingsofRed

    What are these "internet gun sales" these people are talking about? Is there some website you can buy guns off of without background checks or FFL transfers? NO! I'm also sick and tired of every article that talks about gun control referencing the amount of time that it's been since Sandy Hook. More background checks wouldn't have stopped Sandy Hook. Here's the facts: 1) There are bad people in the world. 2) There are good people in the world. 3) Bad people do bad things. 4) Good people can't prevent #3.

    April 18, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  21. Chris Bracey

    Virginia has had instant background checks for years. I am not against that. I am however against using that as a reason to compile a database of gun purchaser. In VA the information is retained by the retailer, not by the government. This information is ONLY collected after a crime has been committed with the firearm so the privacy of the buyer is somewhat maintained. I would add however that while I am in favor of background checks for firearms, I am equally in favor of proof of residency to register to vote and a photo idea to actually vote. How can anyone be in favor of allowing people to vote without even an I.D. but think a full background check should be required to purchase a firearm. Can't voting also be as destructive or are we simply suppose to trust people, in the same way we trust them with gun purchases. Oh the irony.

    April 18, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  22. klaatug

    I get more and more disappointed and discouraged every day. Whether you believe the polls or not, I truly feel that these politicians forget that they are supposed to represent "The People" and not the lobbyists!

    April 18, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  23. GD

    so... all of the sudden we are expecting Congress to be concerned with public opinion? The media wants us to go nuts because we didn't get things our way? Funny how our President cites the fact that we (the public) wanted background checks and didn't get what we wanted just because he didn't get what he wanted. He didn't argue at all when a majority of us didn't want healthcare reform and he had Congress push it through anyway. I am all for background checks, but this is a huge double standard. I dont know what else I would have expected, though.

    April 18, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  24. Anonymous

    This is where reality meets the vote... 90% of Americans DO NOT SUPPORT EXPANDED GUN-CONTROL EFFORTS!

    April 18, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  25. LifeLibertyHappiness

    Middle School civics question: Every person is endowed by his Creator the right to what?

    1. Life – the right to live, preferably w/o fear of being denied said life.
    2. Liberty – second only to Life. One's rights, as written by America's founders, are hereby secondary to the right to live, most importantly w/o fear of being bullied or threatened.
    3. The Pursuit of Happiness. For the uneducated, this was changed from Property for ethical reasons. Americans will only know happiness in a peace-loving union where one's right to live isn't threatened by those who place Liberty above all else.

    Now, some would argue that these are only guidelines and not Law. Surprisingly, both the guidelines and the Law by which America was built were designed to be amended as our Democratic society evolves.

    If your Representative cannot assure that you or your loved-ones will not be denied the right to life by the actions of another, then it is your civic duty to do everything in your power to see him/her replaced with one who can offer that assurance.

    April 18, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
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