April 17th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
2 years 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. Sandstone

    By threatening to defeat the re-election of those who oppose them, the NRA has effectively held a gun to the heads of legislators and said, "Go ahead. Make my day." You gotta wonder, who's actually running the government when lawmakers surrender to such bullying. Whom should we really be fearing and arming ourselves against?

    April 18, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  2. Hal

    So this is sort of like when Obamacare was forced on an unwilling public by the Democrats, yes? What comes around goes around and so the disfuctional wheel in Washington keeps turning. Someday the sheep will wake up and vote for a third party candidate. That is the only way we'll every see true change.

    April 18, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  3. Namejohn hendley

    Dont know where you got your stats on gun control about how many people want it but you are wrong. An average of 3 people a day die in chicago and they have very strick laws. 48,000 Felons tried to buy guns last year only 44 were prosecuted. Americans are not as dumd as you think

    April 18, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  4. Charles Abernathy

    If tougher gun laws are going to prevent gun violence, how come it has not occurred in Chicago, Illinois, or Washington, D.C.?

    April 18, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  5. KenneyP of Colorado

    Funny how these politicians are always claiming 'the people's will/work' is what they are doing. But here we have an overwhelming number of 'the people' who what something and the NRA's will is what gets done. Just like when corporations will get done over the people's will.

    When is the voting majority gonna wake up and vote for real change?

    April 18, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  6. organic intellectual

    you people are idiots... there was never any point of this other than to keep you all from talking about jobs and how the economy still sucks. when this is over we'll go back to gay marriage or abortion. then will you believe it? nah you're more worried about being right. if nobody cares if you're right, whats the value of being right?

    April 18, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  7. Eyes wide opening

    I couldn't even swim through to syrupy bulls",t in this slanted, biased piece of opinion. I wouldn't even wipe my a$$ with this rag. Wake up, why would they fear re election, if 90 percent of all the voters agreed with the bill? Because the polling questions are a setup. Clearly the majority did not agree. As to the NRA being a counterweight to popular opinion, the NRA is only as strong as its members, which are at a record high, what does that tell you?
    cry me a river, then jump in it.

    April 18, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  8. ghostriter

    The NRA effective beat the ATF to the point where it cannot perform it's duties.

    But we've seen this before. Limit an agency's funding, limit thru legislation what they can and can't do...then complain that they aren't doing their jobs.

    The Tiahrt amendments also barred the use of ATF trace data in administrative proceedings such as those to revoke a dealer's license. John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said trace data is extremely useful in establishing "whether a dealer has broken the law," and that barring its use in revocation hearings is "like having a law that says you can't introduce DNA evidence in a rape case." Under Tiahrt most trace data is also off limits to journalists and scholars. "You're trying to detect a pattern," says former ATF agent Vince. "And the idea is, let's keep the truth and the facts from really coming out so the public can't see what's really going on." In a recent report, Mayors Against Illegal Guns charged the gun lobby with "blindfolding law enforcement" by limiting access to trace data.

    April 18, 2013 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  9. ghostriter

    Still, retired ATF agent Wachtel says federal gun laws are "toothless" and that "corrupt licensees and traffickers have little fear of discovery or meaningful punishment." Wachtel calls US gun laws "an illusion" designed to reassure the public that "we can really keep guns from falling into the wrong hands if we just check people's records," while at the same time "telling the industry we're going to help you sell as many guns as you possibly can."

    April 18, 2013 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  10. ghostriter

    Yet lost and stolen firearms account for a huge percentage of the guns that turn up at crime scenes. Between 2005 and 2010, the Justice Department reported 1.4 million guns stolen. More than 80 percent were never recovered as of 2010. Although licensed dealers are required to report stolen weapons, there is no similar requirement for individuals, although numerous cities and towns—30 in Pennsylvania alone—have enacted laws that require such reporting within 24 to 72 hours. The International Association of Chiefs of Police supports these laws, arguing that quick reporting of stolen guns makes it far easier to track down thieves, traffickers and straw purchasers. The NRA opposes lost and stolen reporting laws. An NRA challenge to a Pittsburgh law was turned down in 2010.
    Most of the 1.4 million guns reported stolen between 2005-10 were never recovered. The NRA opposes lost and stolen reporting laws.

    For ATF investigators, a large number of lost or stolen firearms from a particular dealer can be a red flag that the dealer may be selling to criminals. An ATF study in 2000 found that more than 57 percent of crime gun traces in 1998 came from just 1.2 percent of gun dealers. The Washington, D.C.-area snipers, who murdered 10 people in the course of a three-week shooting spree in 2002, obtained their assault rifle from a Tacoma, Washington, dealer with a long history of "missing" firearms.

    April 18, 2013 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  11. Itsdark4u

    Where do they get these b.s. numbers? I dont know a single person who is for more gun laws. I also dont know a single person who was asked to participate in these b.s. made up polls. Cnn is quite the story teller, always creating works of fiction. Complete and total b.s. on these false polls.

    April 18, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  12. Tom

    There is no debate!! We are a Republic form of government governed by law not popular or majority rule. The right to bear arms shall not be infringed regardless how unpopular!!

    April 18, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  13. Steve- Illinois

    @ Matt from Canada, thanks for your opinion, now don't forget to thank us tonight, as you go to sleep under the blanket of security we provide.

    April 18, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  14. ghostriter

    Higgins was stoic about the long-standing ban on databases. "Everyone in the agency understood that things that made sense in the modern era—such as automation—just weren't going to happen." But Higgins also said that working through mountains of paper and microfiche records is a huge waste of agents' time and taxpayer money. As a practical matter, the lack of a computerized records system for gun sales means that a crime gun trace that might otherwise be accomplished in a matter of seconds can take up to two weeks.

    Today, gun sale records are kept at 60,000 separate locations by the nation's 60,000 federal firearms licensees (FFLs). With a centralized database, an ATF agent in possession of a gun found at a crime scene could simply plug the gun's serial number into a computer and identify the name of the dealer who sold the weapon, along with the name of the first purchaser. Without a database, agents must often embark on a Rube Goldberg-style odyssey, contacting the gun's manufacturer or a gun's importer who will direct the agent either to a middleman who sold the weapon to a dealer or to the dealer himself, who can identify the first buyer. Dealers are required to keep records of each firearm transaction. Frequently, however, the records are on paper, and dealers can't locate particular ones quickly. At the same time, there is no law requiring consolidation of wholesale weapon transfers—those sales by the manufacturer or middleman—which means ATF inspectors have no way of knowing whether a dealer's ledgers accurately represent all of the guns he has bought or if he is illegally selling guns off the books.

    April 18, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  15. Jc

    As a conservative, I am disgusted with the way the GOP failed to support this bill. It was a common sense bill that needed to be passed. I have on many occasions defended the NRA, but today I consider them the enemy. Liberals refuse to see the good in the NRA, like the 2009 bill they proposed through the GOP to impose harsher sentences on gun criminals. The left voted against it in a moment if ignorance, now its the right acting like self preserving dips. Granted, this legislation was a pacifier, and did not address the major problems with gun violence, but it was a good start. The biggest complaint about gun laws is the fear of a registry. This bill clearly stated that a registry was not going to be allowed, so I would like to know exactly why they don't support this bill. The main reason for this bill was to cover gun shows. The Internet isn't a problem since there are already laws ensuring that people that buy guns online have to go through a background check, but gun shows are dangerous. Anyone with a firearms ID card who was denied purchase at an FFA can just walk in and purchase. As long as those loopholes exist there isn't safety in the NICS process. I don't own a gun, but will be purchasing a glock 30 next month, and you can bet I'm going to go through an FFA to ensure I am proving my responsibility. If you need a gun that instant then you aren't buying the gun for the right reasons. I suggest the NRA ask for this bill to be re-introduced or they will lose a lot of members.

    April 18, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  16. Larry in Houston

    we'll see what gets "trumped" & how important "gun control" is – when the 2014 mid-terms rolls around. I suspect ( and predict) a "change of the guard" in congress. The Senate will hold, I'm sure. But Boehner will be on his way out.

    April 18, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  17. Sandra Romero

    "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.

    THE ANSWER IS THAT IT IS NOT THE CASE THAT 9 OUT OF 10 AMERICANS WANT IT! BOTH POLLS CITED IN THE ARTICLE WERE CNN SPONSORED/CONDUCTED. CONSIDER THE SOURCE.

    April 18, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Law abiding citizines do not kill people. Criminals do and they don't obey the laws! Why don't they inforce the laws already on the books and quit letting the crooks and nut jobs out on the streets! We don't need more gun laws that will affect the rotery club members! Cnn, Your Public Opinion polls are slanted

    April 18, 2013 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  19. Nampem

    Boy, I am glad that I live in CA. You guNazis can have the hick states.

    April 18, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  20. mbgoss

    The 90% support is NOT for the current bill!!!! The current bill is full of back-room political crap and almost no one supports and the congresspeople know that. Junk journalism that tries to equate the national poll support for reasonable background check measures directly to support for this bill is just that – JUNK!

    Similar to this argument: 100% of people like the sun. However, when congress failed to pass a bill to attempt to crash the earth into the sun, they were going directly against public opinion. Ridiculous right?

    Congress doesn't draft bills that mirror public opinion. They draft bills that are full of junk and pretend that it matches what people support.

    April 18, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  21. Carol Morrisey

    Why does anyone think more background checks will keep guns out of the hands of crazy people and criminals? If someone doesn't qualify for a legitimate gun purchase, he will simply steal one or get it on the black market. We don't need more laws. We need more help for the mentally ill, and we need a national revival of integrity. We also need everyone to be alert to potential risks. People who might become violent might have a completely different future if they received the proper support.

    April 18, 2013 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  22. george

    Depends on HOW you DEFINE public opinon correct??? Not when you only survey the LIBS and the LEFTIES...why not include a cross population and make the survey non biased.....there is an ammendment at stake here and the weapons may not be the problem...it is WHO USES THEM last time I checked..and they can generally speaking, I am told be purchased Legally or Illegally in the country or outsdie the country at any time.

    April 18, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  23. Rural Pennsylvania

    Thankfully, the Senators voted the will of the people! Obviously, the pollsters never talked to anyone in my area or any rural/ suburban area of the country about the bill before Congress. If they did, they would discover that closer to 86% of us were absolutely against it.

    April 18, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  24. fish

    It's only public opinion of the Liberals that were asked.

    April 18, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  25. EMCyclist

    Our arrogant politicians are not listening. Vote them all out and let's start over with a fresh batch who will have noticed that the people want to be heard.

    April 18, 2013 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
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