To Obama's dismay, America not outraged by gun control fail, poll suggests

A new poll finds that less than half of America is upset by the Senate's failure to pass expanded background checks. That was supposed to be the gun control issue with the broadest support.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama stands at the podium as Mark Barden, the father of Newtown shooting victim Daniel, is embraced by Vice President Joe Biden during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House last week about measures to reduce gun violence.

The paradox of American gun control got deeper Wednesday. Or, at least it appeared to. 

On the surface, the poll released by The Washington Post and Pew Research Center made no sense. Only 47 percent of respondents said they were "disappointed" or "angry" that the Senate last week failed to advance a bill to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales. 

Yet in February, a Pew poll found that 83 percent of respondents supported an expansion of background checks to cover gun shows and all private sales – measures that would actually be stricter than what the Senate rejected.

So what gives? If Americans overwhelmingly support strict background checks, why aren't they angrier that the Senate failed to pass even moderate background checks? How could 39 percent be "happy" or "relieved" by the result? Where is the outrage to which President Obama was appealing when he called the Senate vote "a pretty shameful day for Washington"?

There are, perhaps, clues in the poll itself, which suggests that the forces against the bill were more motivated than those supporting the bill. Americans might also have come to the conclusion that the bill wouldn't do much.

But the real takeaway, some say, is that the gun control debate played into the broader narrative of America's enduring libertarian streak. As with the legalization of marijuana, the spread of same-sex marriage, and the fresh possibility of comprehensive immigration reform, the common thread is that, in many cases, Americans are loath to tell their neighbors what to do.

“Americans do have a certain live-and-let-live attitude, and guns are a good illustration,” says Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control.” “That’s why you’ve never gotten a majority of Americans who favor an outright ban on handguns. That’s not because most Americans own guns, or even handguns, but there is a certain attitude that, ‘Look, I’m not a gun owner, I don’t like guns around, but if someone else wants to own a gun, I’m not going to insist that ought to be somehow restricted.’ There’s sympathy for that brand of libertarianism in American politics; it’s not real libertarianism, it’s libertarian lite.”

Others suggest that the lack of outrage supports Mr. Obama's assertion that the gun lobby lied to Americans about the bill.

“This poll basically validates the NRA’s take-no-prisoner approach, where they lump everything together as antigun, and where this reveals that the public must have, for the most part, bought that – that’s the only way to make sense of that many people being happy with the outcome,” says David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Dysfunctional Congress? The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma.”

“That’s why I see this as more disturbing than a validation, because public opinion did get misled on this with false rhetoric about how people couldn’t give guns to family members without a background check, which was taken out as part of the compromise" bill in the Senate.

Or perhaps the National Rifle Association simply succeeded in making the vote a proxy for the broader issue of gun rights – not the narrower issue of background checks. Pew notes that poll results mirror broader sentiments about gun control, suggesting that Americans may simply not have been paying close attention to the details of the debate.

Moreover, many Americans might have accepted the NRA's argument that the background checks – however well intentioned – would not have accomplished much. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of Calfornia, one of the Senate’s staunchest gun control advocates, conceded that none of the proposed laws, including her assault weapons ban, would have stopped the December massacre in Newtown, Conn, in which 20 first-graders and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary were killed.

Assault weapons, for example, are used in only a small number of murders every year. And while Obama said up to 40 percent of guns are purchased without background checks, the actual number is closer to 20 percent, according to Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler.

“Even among people who support background checks there’s skepticism about whether these policy proposals will significantly reduce gun crime,” says Charles Franklin, a pollster at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “That means advocates have had to argue, ‘Yeah, this isn’t going to stop every bad man with a gun, but if at the margins it makes things a little safer it’s worth doing.’ That’s hardly the compelling prose that rallies to the people barricades and to the voting booths.”

That passion divide, touched on by Obama in his miffed post-vote address, was evident in the poll. Some 40 percent of respondents said they followed the vote very closely. Of those, 31 percent said they were very happy about the outcome, while 22 percent said they were angry.

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