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. Joey

    I live in SF and everyone I know wants no more gun laws...who did these polls?

    April 18, 2013 12:49 am at 12:49 am |
  2. Rod

    I think it times to give gun massacres names just like we name hurricanes. I propose we take the list of names of senators that voted against this measure and use their names to name future gun disasters. We'll refer to the next gun massacre as the Tom Coburn Massacre and just go down the list after each subsequent massacre. That will be something they can be really proud of.

    April 18, 2013 12:54 am at 12:54 am |
  3. David

    CNN...why exactly is this comment section different than other comments sections? Why isn't this disqus? What do you do, feed all negative comments straight back to DHS from here?
    But we do need to correct one assumption of your article. I assure you, the WILL of the people was done. What happened was EXACTLY the public opinion. We have shown once again that a few shrill voices crying loudly does not overrule the majority of Americans. Very refreshing, it is rare that we actually achieve this in D.C. these days.

    April 18, 2013 01:21 am at 1:21 am |
  4. Libacryte

    Actually, public opinion DID win out – that's why the bill did not pass. Sorry that obama isn't "King" and that he didn't get his way this time. I know he's been used to getting his way, and used to the media kissing his rump, but this time, Americans spoke.

    The use of people like Gabby Giffords, and the parents of the Newtown victims are a pathetic attempt at trying to stir up emotions – well guess what, laws shouldn't be passed based off of emotions, but rather FACTS!!!

    April 18, 2013 01:24 am at 1:24 am |
  5. Oscar

    "Public Opinion" and the bill of rights should not be used in the same sentence. Public opinion has often been against much of the bill of rights. Don't forget the Sedition act that was response to public opinion and shut down strong criticism of war for decades.

    And on this both the NRA and the ACLU agree

    April 18, 2013 01:32 am at 1:32 am |
  6. Jim g

    Well, at last the Senate voted with the American majority. No, not the the general public,but the lobbyist money. They should be proud, all the way to the bank. The lies about this bill were endless, period.

    April 18, 2013 01:35 am at 1:35 am |
  7. 60minuteman

    Once again, the republican minority protects the corporations and thwarts the will of the people.

    April 18, 2013 01:36 am at 1:36 am |
  8. angryoldguy

    Why are we so surprised that our "elected Officials" always vote whichever way the money tells them to? We keep electing people who do nothing but prostitute themselves to whoever gives them the most cash to run for office and then vote whatever way the money people tell them to vote. They do not represent the will of the people (the masses) they only represent the will of those who have bought and paid for their service to them.

    April 18, 2013 01:38 am at 1:38 am |
  9. Greater Good

    I can't buy two packs of cold medicine at one time or drink an opener container of beer in public...because why? I might do something crazy..? But walking around with a gun...let's try to make that as easy as possible. Seriously, Is it to much too much to ask to make things just a little toughter for the mentally unstable, criminals, or terrorists?

    April 18, 2013 01:51 am at 1:51 am |
  10. Greater Good

    What a disgrace. The Senate shows its true colors by putting the wishes of the gun lobby ahead of millions of Americans.

    April 18, 2013 01:56 am at 1:56 am |
  11. Canowitz

    Like the last midterms?

    April 18, 2013 02:36 am at 2:36 am |
  12. John

    We live in a Republic, not a Democracy, i.e. the majority doesn't rule. It's funny how people (Obama being one of them) flaunt numbers and polls indicating the majority of Americans favor this or favor that. Bottom line is it doesn't matter...this country is based upon a Republic, not a Democracy. Get over it!

    April 18, 2013 02:46 am at 2:46 am |
  13. Temperlou

    The Democrats that didn't vote Obama's way were looking out for their own jobs come election time. Obama is a lame duck and everyone knows it. The majority of the people in the United States don't think that this deal is a good idea and will vote their reps out.

    April 18, 2013 02:50 am at 2:50 am |
  14. Charles Collins

    Hey Paul, do you read anything besides CNN? The public was AGAINST the gun bill. Even 91% of the policemen said it would have no effect on crime, and did not support it, People did somewhat support expanded background checks, but not to the extent proposed and certainly not the other things that got tacked on. The American People spoke, and were answered. They did not like this bill, and it did not pass. Thank God!!

    April 18, 2013 02:58 am at 2:58 am |
  15. Jerry Yates

    Lobbying and PAC's should both be made illegal. They are both forms of bribery.

    April 18, 2013 03:33 am at 3:33 am |
  16. Steve in North Carolina

    The author sounds mystified. It's really very simple. This is the Senate and if you look at the vote State by State you will see that by and large the Senate voted the way their constituents back home would have wanted them to. A senator from Wyoming for example is going to vote nay regardless of how many voters in New York wants him to vote yea. Each state has two Senators, so Wyoming has just as much say as New York.

    April 18, 2013 03:48 am at 3:48 am |
  17. christophergrove

    Maybe it was the measure that was not up to the standards of the 86% of the people. Also, I have never bought a gun without having a background check. The public has been misinformed.

    Since Obama is unable to get anything done can we just send him to Venezuela and stop wasting time and money.

    April 18, 2013 03:51 am at 3:51 am |
  18. andrew

    If 86% of the people, or as the Pres. states 90+% approve of stricter gun laws this would have passed. Support is waning.
    If the VP wants to save just one child, he could look at stopping just one abortion. Just one

    April 18, 2013 03:54 am at 3:54 am |
  19. ronvan

    Argue all you want. What this really shows is how our "elected children" have been bought off by lobbyists, special interest groups, etc..

    April 18, 2013 04:16 am at 4:16 am |
  20. John

    Explain to me how background checks could have stopped Tony Danza or James Holmes.

    April 18, 2013 04:42 am at 4:42 am |
  21. It's my country and I'll laugh at it if I want to

    these congressman have a solemn oath to serve their masters.

    Romney's people, the soul of the GOP: the corporations and whoever owns them, foreign and domestic.

    bullets anyone?

    April 18, 2013 05:01 am at 5:01 am |
  22. buxfan

    Isnt that just too bad!! Public opinion was trumped when "OWEbama" rammed the affordable healthcare act down our throats and that was OK, now they want to cry about it? What a bunch of turds!

    April 18, 2013 05:09 am at 5:09 am |
  23. Folkingtales

    Just got thia to say. Those polls are a bunch of BS, out in the street people do not want our rights taken. Peoples opinion actually got upheld.

    April 18, 2013 05:29 am at 5:29 am |
  24. Shawn

    So where is the opinion at that most people want further background checks? Every comment section in almost every news agency's websites that allow comments only seem to have about 10-15% of comments showing support for expanded background checks. If 90% of people supported this, don't you think that it would be reflected on all the forums and comments sections? And it doesn't matter, right, left, middle, they are resoundingly against the checks. So it sounds like public opinion is in fact NOT supportive of expanded legislation, despite what Obama and the white house says

    April 18, 2013 05:31 am at 5:31 am |
  25. Chris

    Poll after poll showed that over 90% of Americans wanted stronger background checks.

    The NRA has a membership of only 1% of the population.

    And who does Congress listen to? The NRA – just shows who Congress really serves.

    April 18, 2013 06:06 am at 6:06 am |
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