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.”
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.
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.
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."