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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.

By John J. Pitney Jr. / April 18, 2013

President Obama puts his arm around former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., before he speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House April 17, 2013, about measures to reduce gun violence, including the Senate defeat of broader background checks. Oped contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'The National Rifle Association wins so many battles because of its zeal, its persistence, and its organization.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


Claremont, Calif.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, polls have shown overwhelming public support for expanding background checks on gun sales, with one poll showing 9 out of 10 Americans backing the idea. Yet on Wednesday, a bill to do just that went down to defeat in the Senate. As President Obama pointed out, “The American people are trying to figure out how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen.”

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The simplest explanation for this disconnect is that Senate procedures enable minorities to thwart majorities. The legislation on background checks had the support of 54 of the 100 senators, but it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

The Senate rulebook was not the only obstacle. For several reasons, there has often been a chasm between what the people say they want and what their legislators actually do.

First, no member of Congress represents the whole country. The lawmakers answer to specific geographical constituencies, many of which may diverge from national opinion. That’s the case with gun control proposals, which often score well in surveys of the whole country while triggering strong resistance in the South and Mountain West. These regions include states with relatively small populations, which enjoy outsized influence in the Senate. Though Wyoming has less than 2 percent as many people as California, it has the same number of senators.

Second, issue polls typically include nonvoters as well as voters. But in the eyes of politicians, nonvoters are nonpersons. Elected officials focus on the people who actually show up to vote, and their sentiments might differ from those who stay home on Election Day.

More specifically, politicians also have to worry about the people who vote in primaries. Republicans and Democrats need to nurture their ideological bases, or else face defeat at the hands of primary opponents. This tendency has become more pronounced in recent years in the House of Representatives, where red districts have gotten redder and blue districts have gotten bluer.

Third, intensity comes into play, as a passionate minority can trump a relatively indifferent majority. The former will remember in November, but the latter won’t. Gun control has usually exhibited this pattern: Second Amendment enthusiasts will always get in touch with their lawmakers and vote on the basis of this one issue, while supporters of more gun regulation may answer “yes” to a survey question and then forget about it.

Advocates hoped that the Newtown shootings would change the dynamic – not only by increasing support for gun control but also by making that support more fervent. But any such effect was bound to fade, though not among those directly affected. In this case, timing worked against gun control. Newtown happened while Congress was focusing on the fiscal cliff. Then came the early months of the 113th Congress, with a relatively light work schedule. Now that the lawmakers have gotten down to business for real, months have passed and passions have cooled.


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