Why Republicans defy public opinion in gun-control fight

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday, ' I will be doing everything in my power' to block President Obama's gun-control proposals – despite polls showing support for gun control.

Eric Gay/AP
Austin Ehlinger helps hold a banner during a Guns Across America rally at the state capitol Saturday in Austin, Texas. Gun-rights advocates rallied across the US Saturday in response to the president's push for new gun-control laws.

To the surprise of precisely no one within the Beltway, the Senate's top Republican on Saturday told people across his home state of Kentucky that – if he has his way – President Obama's gun-control proposals won't go anywhere.   

In a taped phone call sent to Kentucky gun owners, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) said: “Know that I will be doing everything in my power as Senate Republican leader, fighting tooth and nail, to protect your Second Amendment rights, so that law-abiding citizens such as yourself can properly and adequately protect yourself, your family, and your country.” 

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama unveiled three proposals that he urged Congress to pass: mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on assault weapons, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

National public opinion polls show majority support for all three measures. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 85 percent support for background checks, 55 percent support a ban on assault weapons, and 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Perhaps surprisingly, these numbers hold even in red states. A Georgia poll by Atlanta TV station WXIA, for example, mirrored the Pew poll almost exactly.

But don't expect a backlash against Senator McConnell if he blocks Obama's plans. After all, those aren't the numbers that he will be looking at.

He will note that only 44 percent of Republicans back a ban on assault weapons, and Republicans similarly line up against the magazine ban. He will also note that, among those who say protecting gun rights is more important than controlling guns, nearly one-quarter have contributed to a gun-rights group. Among those who think gun control is more important, only 5 percent have contributed to gun-control groups.

In other words, the gun-rights folks are far more engaged. And that will matter tremendously to McConnell, in particular.

He faces reelection in 2014. Turnout is generally low in a midterm cycle, meaning McConnell will want to woo the most engaged voters – and gun-rights supporters fit that bill. Moreover, in red-state Kentucky, McConnell likely has more to fear from a right-wing challenger in the Republican primary than from a Democrat in the general election (even if Ashley Judd does join the race). That's why he'll tack to the right – as moderate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is doing in South Carolina.

Indeed, the savvy senator's robocall flirted with the deep fears that drive gun owners – that Obama's laws are a only a first step toward gutting the Second Amendment and taking away Americans' guns – to stoke their motivation. 

“President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” McConnell said in the call. “Their efforts to restrict your rights, invading your personal privacy and overstepping their bounds with executive orders, is just plain wrong.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the call came on the same day as a Guns Across America rally in state capitals – a nationwide backlash by gun owners against the president's proposals.

McConnell's efforts recall those of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, which used gay marriage as a "wedge issue," as the Monitor's Liz Marlantes noted earlier this week. By compelling states to put gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot, the campaign succeeded in wooing more conservatives to the polls – who, of course, mostly voted for Mr. Bush. Gun control could work the same way in 2014.

But the general statements in McConnell's robocall don't lock him into striking down all gun-control measures. Polls show that even Republicans strongly favor a provision for background checks on all weapons purchases. (Currently, there is no mandate for background checks on private sales.)

That, congressional sources have said, is the most likely point of compromise for gun control on Capitol Hill.  

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