In gun vote, majority doesn't rule

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (right) with relatives of shooting victims from Newtown, Conn., and Tucson, Ariz., after the Senate vote.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (right) with relatives of shooting victims from Newtown, Conn., and Tucson, Ariz., after the Senate vote. (ALEX WONG / Getty Images)
Posted: April 19, 2013

If there were ever a moment that symbolized the difference between the power of public opinion and the strength of a concerted minority, it came Wednesday when the Senate defeated a measure to expand background checks on gun purchases.

By the time the vote took place, the outcome was expected. The result was stunning nonetheless, as was made clear by the reaction of President Obama, who had invested so much capital on getting gun legislation passed after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., only to see those efforts crushed.

Obama's description - "a pretty shameful day for Washington" summed up the frustrations that many ordinary Americans long have expressed about the capital, which is that the system appears tilted in favor of blocking action on important, if controversial, issues rather than enacting legislation to deal with them.

The proposal to expand background checks to sales at gun shows and online was cosponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), two pro-gun-rights lawmakers. It had the support of more than a majority of senators - 54 ayes to 46 nays.

More significant, perhaps, in a polarized country is that the idea of expanded background checks received overwhelming support across the political spectrum. Nine in 10 Democrats, more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents, and almost nine in 10 Americans who live in households with guns backed the proposal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly all of them said they "strongly" favored the plan.

In the ways of Washington, that wasn't enough.

"If you ever wanted a textbook example of intensity trumping preference, this is it," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "You could have 100 percent of those polled saying they wanted universal background checks, and it would still be defeated. You can't translate poll results into public policy."

Before the vote, the White House website displayed the message: "Now is the time to do something about gun violence. Let's make our call so loud it's impossible to ignore." But those voices could not overcome the power of the National Rifle Association, the rest of the gun lobby, or the procedural obstacles that are common in the Senate.

The demise of the Manchin-Toomey proposal represented a resounding defeat for the president, who had seized on the issue after the massacre in Newtown in December.

There had seemed no better opportunity in recent years for Congress to pass new gun-control measures, given the public outcry after the Newtown shootings, which killed 20 children and six adults. Obama moved quickly, knowing that with each passing day the prospects for congressional action would diminish. He spoke out frequently and tried to rally not just public opinion but public pressure.

"In many ways, everything was in place," Baker said. "Public opinion. Two centrist senators. A full-court press by the president. Astute parliamentary measures" by Sen. Harry Reid. Still, it did not happen.

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