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Opinion

Why the 90 percent lost on gun background checks

The Senate defeated background checks for gun sales, despite 90 percent of Americans favoring broader checks. The simplest explanation for this is Senate procedures, but NRA intensity counts for a lot. The way ahead for gun control groups is to match the NRA email for email.

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Fourth, presidents have only a limited ability to drive public opinion and mass political action. Even at the peak of his popularity, President Reagan was able to motivate cards and letters when he was selling something that people already liked (e.g., tax cuts). When he tried to stir Americans on tougher issues (e.g., aid to Nicaraguan rebels), he got nowhere.

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Today, presidents work in a much more demanding media environment. Until the 1980s, they could “roadblock” the television networks with an Oval Office address. Now, they have to compete with hundreds of other channels and the Internet. Moreover, their critics and opponents have many more opportunities to respond in real time. Nobody live-blogged FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech.

Fifth and perhaps most important, James Madison still rules America. The Framers designed a bicameral legislature and the separation of powers specifically to prevent an automatic translation of public opinion into public policy. Supporters of the system say that it fosters deliberation and ensures the protection of minority rights. Critics say that it prevents passage of necessary legislation.

At the moment, political progressives are especially disappointed in the system. They should remember, however, that it has enabled them to block conservative ideas that were popular with the general public. If the polls always prevailed, after all, America would have a balanced-budget amendment and a constitutional ban on flag burning. President Obama has frequently taken credit for making tough decisions that were unpopular at the time, implicitly acknowledging that poll numbers do not always translate into righteousness.

So what can advocates of gun control do now?

Among other things, they need to learn from the other side. The National Rifle Association wins so many battles because of its zeal, its persistence, and its organization. Those who want tougher restrictions on firearms have to stoke the same kind of ardor, matching the NRA letter for letter, email for email, and phone call for phone call.

That’s difficult, except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. But the president’s political group, Organizing for America (OFA), might have the resources and savvy to succeed, helped along by the efforts of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The OFA insists that it is not a purely partisan organization and will pressure Democrats and Republicans alike. We'll see if it follows through.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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