April 17th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
9 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.

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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. OKC

    With all of the bad information after New Town and Boston I think there needs to be a 48 hour waiting period (so the Government can verify the information for accuracy) before news people can report the news. this common sence law would keep false reports from being dispensed and like Boston the wrong name of a victim announced.

    April 18, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  2. Lol

    Wait I thought the sensate was supposed to reflect public opinion....

    April 18, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  3. dd

    public opinion says, "leave our guns alone". i don't know where people like cnn get the notion that everyone is for more laws. who do you talk to? politicians know (in a sense) what public opinion is, that's why this went down. yes, the NRA has influence, but so do voters and the politicians know this. i'm all for background checks, we need to know the mental stability and criminal activity of those applying for a licence, but let us not forget that this is nothing but a band-aid to a much larger problem. criminals are not going to voluntarily put their name in a data base, nor is this going to weed out the mentally ill. whereas we have the ability to do something to help the sick, what do we do about the criminal, for they will always find a way to obtain a gun.

    April 18, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  4. bob

    NO...The will of the people trumped the Liberal Agenda. The fact is the democrats attempt to politicize the Newtown shootings failed.

    April 18, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  5. Buddy

    I seriously doubt the 80-90 percent figure. Take me for instance. I'm all for logical measures being put into place. I use the term logical because I'm sick of hearing Obama use the "common sense" arguement. Who decides what is common sense? What I find logical is that the measures that would lead to background checks be focused on background checks. However, typical of our government, so much crap is tacked onto the bill somewhere in the hopes that nobody will notice it, i.e., the recent Monsanto debacle. In my circle of aquaintances there are very few people who believe any new gun control measures, even ones we believe to be logical, will stop at that new standard. Once one bill is passed the anti-gun nuts will begin working on the next bill. So if I'm afraid (not paranoid because it is simple logic) that once I agree to one thing then there will be another thing, then another and so on and so forth, then I'm not willing to give an inch. Even an inch I believe in. So until all can be logical I will vote against all gun control measures. Besides, the problems that facilitated this whole conversation are not going to be solved by gun control. That's just logical.

    April 18, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  6. KJ

    NRA makes me sick along with the gutless senate! Aren't you supposed to represent the people?? No wonder your approval rating is close to zero!

    April 18, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  7. Arsh

    everyone i talk to is pro gun and didnt want this crappy legislation to pass. IDK who the hell CNN poll'd but it was the wrong people. this will show in the next election when dems are out voted.

    April 18, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. Marcus

    Obama is not going to get ANYTHING done – which I really like. He has harmed the country enough with the first four years of faiilure – Obamacare, green projects, dividing the country on class, race and gender lines. I hope congress stymies him for 3+ more years – can't get rid of the loser fast enough.

    April 18, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  9. Arsh

    oh and for the record I voted dem in every election i've voted in. thanks to this attempted legislation i'll be voting straight red.

    April 18, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  10. Curmudgeon

    Public opinion gets trumped in gun control defeat?
    First, what the hell kind of headline is that? A bit of bias involved?
    Second, I doubt seriously that the "poll" was representative.

    April 18, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  11. Teamgreen

    No Mr President, our representatives finally listened to us and not all the hype you spread around and you sir are the liar! Thank those of you who voted no and for not blaming guns for the death of people and now lets put the teeth back in our current laws. Swift, lethal justice to those who kill.

    April 18, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  12. bspurloc

    iso Bear Arms

    April 18, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  13. Larry L


    To really know what America thinks, you start by throwing every poll taken in the trash. There are no unbiased polls.
    Polling is a science and one we depend upon for many important decisions. About a dozen polls showed Americans to very strongly support better background checks and that even included Fox News – the most obviously dishonest poll available. All questions have some level of bias and so would those included in a very expensive referendum vote. The honest polls try to minimize the bias and use statistically valid sample sizes and populations to give reliable results. I've noticed people tend to accept results they approve and reject those with opinions contrary to their own. Cherry-picking poll results from polls known to intentionally adjust the result (Fox & MSNBC for example) by wording of the questions is a bad way to make decisions... Just ask Mitt Romney.

    April 18, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  14. Anonymous

    Polls? How accurate are polls.? If you can show the number of letters, or postings that each member of the Senate received, for and against, then you would have a much more accurate piciture on whether your elected officials are acting on the 'will of the people'. Poll data can be skewed so easily by changing one word in a question. Polls schmolls. This bill did not have the support of the majority of Americans, many of whom view this issue the way that hardline Dems view abortion...take away one litttle piece of Roe v Wade, ie partial birth, and then they will go after everything.

    April 18, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  15. Dennis M. Wheeler

    Time to vote the Grand Old Pharts out.

    April 18, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  16. matt

    Public opinion did work! There are things worth fighting and standing up for, with the backing of the majority of the American people, who's rational thought process hasn't been blurred by such horrible tragedies'. Obama, and all of the leftist, and there supporters lost, and lost big, and it was for the greater good! With history fresh in our minds from ww2 to Syria, 6 million Jews, 12 million Russians, Rwandan's, tootsies, Yugoslavians and everyone in between who did not have the basic means to defend themselves, because someone thought it was a good idea or in there best interest. no thank you! I'll take my chances, and exercise my rights, all of them! If you don't want to exercise your rights that's your choice!

    April 18, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  17. Chuk

    Yes, this is how Americans want it: lobby groups that preach "first amendment rights" which ironically gives their elected officials freedom to ignore their electors. Now, that's democracy.

    April 18, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  18. cdub

    At one point in our country's history (like columbine) we would have put politics aside, at least for a time after a major tragedy such as newtown, but we hate and despise each other so much, that we cannot do that anymore. I love my country, and I would die for my country no question, but I am deeply ashamed. There are no excuses. No rigged polls, or props. There is simply a town (and have we forgotten the theater shooting and Gifford shooting?) that lost a lot of lives, and a lot of those lives weren't even teens, they were children. Children who hadn't even had a chance to dream of a future, and in one day they were killed as well as any kids they would have had. This is not political, it is common sense and it is simply the right thing to do, and we failed, and in that failure we have offered those who have perished nothing but excuses and selfishness. This is going to come back and bite us, and when it does we are going to be asking, "why?", and we have no one to blame but ourselves and the people we elected (be it dem. or rep.)

    April 18, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  19. Riff

    In response to Matt from Canada.
    Matt, I'm from Canada too and I own many of the so-called "assault weapons" that were on the list to be banned in the US. That's right – here in Canada – AR15s, AK47s, FN FALs. Unfortunately many of my "assault weapons" gradually made it on to a prohibited list (can't use them anymore, they will be confiscated when I die) here in Canada and that only happened after I voluntarily registered them in the 80s and 90s when registration requirements were introduced and increased. If I knew then what I know now I would have resisted any form of gun control because eventually its one purpose becomes confiscation. Fortunately there are are many rifles nowadays (in Canada) that do not need to be registered anymore including weapons that "look" like weapons of war. I am collecting those.... and guess what? When the call comes to register those, I won't be complying.
    Fool me once, shame on you.
    Fool me twice, shame on me.
    Never again.

    April 18, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  20. looknclick

    We can not simply and voluntarily give up our freedoms based on political pressure and rhetoric.
    The results of certain actions can be studied and the results predicted.
    Why it os not done yet, because the discussed expected results is not what is behind of this government and media pressure. They have some other objectives in mind. Connect the dots.

    April 18, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  21. obama

    I knew it wouldn't pass

    April 18, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  22. Rick

    And the gun lobby isn't a pimple on the behind of the oil lobby so imagine what they are getting away with.

    April 18, 2013 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  23. ken

    How do criminals get their stuff? By stealing from law-abidibing citizens. Your congressman needs to be changed to reflect the needs of society, get the old boys club out of there (the NRA backed ones) and start with what America wants. There are way too much mass murders done by guns. The argument that guns don't kill, people kill....is childish. People USE guns for mass killings to reword it correctly. The second ammendment really needs to reflect the needs of today's society, repeal it already or replace it to reflect the 21st century.

    April 18, 2013 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  24. melshop

    Couple of factual problems with the story. In all the CNN/Big 3 Network news stories, all have talked about "public opinion being trumped" but none have ever backed up that statement with any kind of poll numbers. From what I've heard on social networks, and seen in gun supply stores, and heard about in the public is that no one really liked this push and it had very little public support. That's why it didn't get the support from Congress – the voters back home didn't like it.

    The other factual problem I have in all these stories is that none ever address exactly what the law would have changed. They talk about gun show sales etc., but I understand that those who sell guns at gun shows have a business. That means they are professionally licensed to sell guns and also means they must do background checks. The bill originally would have required background checks on private sales but that was nixed when they started excluding things like family sales. So, in reality, it would have only applied to a very small portion of people who sell privately to another person outside their family. Then, there is no way to ensure they met all the laws standards including background checks because there isn't registration. So, in effect, it's like if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it...
    So really, this legislation would have done nothing at all except allow the Obama administration tell the public that they did something remarkable.

    April 18, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  25. lilgtogirl

    I don't know whose opinion mattered, but I told my representatives to keep the hell away from my gun rights. My opinion finally mattered.

    April 18, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
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